All posts by robertmcgrath

Data Comics?

Benjamin Bach and colleagues wrote in IEEE Computer Graphics about “The Emerging Genre of Data Comics” [1]. I like data and I like comics, so I’ll love data comics, right?

Data comics is a combination of data + story + visualization. They say that it is “a new genre, inspired by how comics function” ([1], p.7)

The “how comics function” is largely about flow and multiple panels. As Scott McCloud says, the action happens in the gutter ([2], p. 66) (i.e., between the panels).

(By the way, Sensei McCloud teaches that this happens though the active engagement of the reader, who closes the gap with his or her imagination. If you haven’t read Understanding Comics [2], stop reading this blog right now and go read McCloud. I’ll wait here.)

The authors assert that data always has context, and “Context creates story, which wants to be narrated” ([1], p. 10). Well, maybe, though I think it is a mistake to read this as “you can tell whatever story you want” (the Hollywood approach). Part of the context is what kinds of stories it is OK to tell.

The authors give four advantages of the medium,

  • Combines text and pictures
  • Delivers one message at a time in a guided tour
  • Data visualization gives evidence for facts
  • Other types of visualization can tell the story clearly

This article itself is delivered in the form of a comic (though not a data comic), which highlights both the advantages and the limitations of this approach.

One really good thing about storyboards and comix is that they force you to boil down your story to a handful of panels, with only so much on each. This isn’t always easy, but it surely helps organize the story.

Compare this to written or spoken word, which can flow any way you want and can go on as long as you have strength, with no guarantee that any organized narrative is told.

I note that any good visualization (or demo) probably had a storyboard in the beginning, which is essentially a comic strip of the overall story to be told.

The medium isn’t without drawbacks.

Fro example, this article was very difficult for my ancient eyes to read. The text was rather too small and blurry for me to read and white on black lettering is hard for me to make out. Many of the pictures were below my visual threshold. E.g., One panel is about “Early examples led the way” has tiny versions of other comics, which are illegible and may as well not be there.

Also, it was difficult to quote (i.e., remix) ideas from this article. E.g., I couldn’t easily quote the “Early examples” panel to make my point about it. I could probably have extracted the picture, fiddled with it in a drawing package, and saved a (blurry) image to include here. But how would that make my point about the illegibility of the original?

As a general rule, comix need to be pretty simple or they are impossible to read. This means that they can only deliver a very concise story. As Back, et al. suggest, this is a feature, not a bug.

On the other hand, telling “only one message at a time” is not just “concise” it is a Procrustean bed. For complicated data there isn’t one message, there are many. A data comic runs the risk of trivializing or misleading by omission. This is a bug, not a feature.

The challenge is to make “concise” be deep rather than shallow.

This is why trying to express the story in a storyboard (comic) is an extremely good design practice, even if the story isn’t ultimately published in the form of a comic.

  1. Benjamin Bach, Nathalie Henry Riche, Sheelagh Carpendale, and Hanspeter Pfister, The Emerging Genre of Data Comics. IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 38 (3):6-13, 2017.
  2. Scott McCloud,, Understanding Comics, HarperCollins, 1994.

How Fast was T. Rex?

Tyrannosaurus Rex is everyone’s favorite dinosaur, and we’ve all seen dozens of depictions of T. rex, and various more or less scientific reconstructions of its appearance and behavior.

One question has always been, “how fast did T. rex run?”

Experience from living land animals suggests that really large individuals are often slow-moving. On the other hand, T rex certainly looks like a fast runner, though it might have relied on surprise ambushes or even on harvesting carrion.

This month Sellers, William I published a study that uses mathematical models of the structure of the T rex skeleton, taking into account the strength of the bones [1]. The idea is that running stresses the body, and ultimately an animal cannot run so fast that it breaks its bones and joints.

There is a long history of biomechanica studies of living animals which has been applied to fossils including T. rex. These methods use the measurements of the skeleton along with plausible hypotheses about the muscles and other tissues to estimate the “locomotor performance” of the ancient animals. The authors report that these studies have given a range of estimates for how fast a T rex could move, from 5 to 15 m/s, including walking and running gaits.

The current study refines these estimates using two simulations, a mechanical model of the skeleton and a model of the stress on the bones.

Machine learning algorithms are used to generate the muscle activation patterns that simultaneously produce the maximum locomotor speed of a MBDA model of T. rex whilst maintaining defined skeletal safety factors.” ([1], p. 3)

These simulations were run driven by models of walking and running gaits. The detailed model involves all the muscle firings in the animal, so finding a stable gait is a huge computation. The system was run many times to search for maximum speed using the gaits. (See the paper for details.)

These computations indicate that the fast walking gait is consistent with bone stresses typically seen in living animals, which the running gaits often exceed typical stress levels. The authors argue that this indicates that adult T. rex did not run.

Considering the size of the animal, this isn’t a completely surprising conclusion. This fast walk may have been perfectly sufficient, given the size of their herbivore prey, which probably couldn’t run fast either.

The researchers are careful to point out that their simulations are simplified in order to make them computationally feasible. This method is effectively searching through all possible designs for a T. rex, which is a ludicrously large number of variables. In the future, more complete models may be possible, and the results may be refined.

They note that the behavior of a T. rex must have changed as it developed. The smaller young ones might have been fast runners, but reduced to walking as they grow enormous. But little is known about the developmental process.

The also note that their result overturned estimates based on analogy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that the relatively long and gracile limbs of T. rex—long argued to indicate competent running ability […]—would actually have mechanically limited it to walking gaits, and indeed maximised its walking speed. This observation illustrates the limitation of approaches that rely solely on analogy and the importance of a full biomechanical analysis when investigating animals with extreme morphologies such as T. rex.” ([1], p..13)


Both dinosaurs and a neat example of multiphysics models, and an example of why HPC is relevant to lots of fields.

  1.  William I. Sellers, Stuart B. Pond, Charlotte A. Brassey, Philip L. Manning, and Karl T. Bates, Investigating the running abilities of Tyrannosaurus rex using stress-constrained multibody dynamic analysis. PeerJ, 5:e3420, 2017/07/18 2017.

Yet Another Bitcoin Use Case: microtransactions

With the usual drumbeat of bad news continues, fraud, price manipulation, opaque actors, extortion, and just plain “oopsies”, a disinterested observer can be forgiven for wondering if the end is near for crypotcurrencies.

Bitcoin itself is increasingly controlled by giant mining combines who effectively control the Bitcoin network. This situation was assumed to be impossible in the original Nakmoto design [1], but here it is. And it is leading to a catastrophic crackup (AKA the “hard fork”), possibly as soon as August.

Meanwhile, this blog is ticking off the long list of supposed use cases for Bitcoin and blockchains. Supply chains?  Yes.  Remittance? Not on a public blockchain. Local currencies? Nope. Identity? Mostly not.

This week there is yet another use case that isn’t happening: Microtransactions.

From the start, it was imagined that Bitcoin technology could support transactions of any size, down to fractions of a penny. The cost of doing a transaction could be small, possibly even zero, and if so, then there is no reason not to do lots of tiny transactions. This would open the way to all kinds of new business (pay as you go for web content, metered use of services, etc.) including automatic management of IoT resources.

How is this admittedly exciting use case holding up?

Chuan Tian reports in Coindesk that “SatoshiPay to Stop Using Bitcoin Blockchain for MicropaymentsStoshiPay is a nicely developed concept that has, for instance, a plugin for WordPress that would let me charge you a tenth of a penny (in Bitcoin) to read this deathless prose.

Their business model is to take 10% of every transaction—when you paid me, they get 1/100 of a penny.

The original approach was to just use Bitcoin, putting the transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain. Even bundling a bunch of them, these are small transactions, so the cost of pushing them out to the ledger obviously has to be small enough for the 10% cut to be profitable.

As Tian points out, the “essentially zero” transaction costs seen even two years ago are long gone, and more than one company has abandoned microtransactions with Bitcoin. At $2 and more per transaction, it is economically infeasible to implement microtransactions directly in Bitcoin. (By the way, these transaction costs for Bitcoin are now in the range with conventional financial systems.)

Why has this happened? Congestion.

The same scaling issues that are threatening to crack Bitcoin into multiple rival networks have pushed transaction fees higher and higher. The big players who are collect these fees (their entire business model is to collect these fees) have blocked engineering changes that would likely reduce congestion, and lower fees.

It is possible that transaction fees might go down, who knows. But the fact is there isn’t any good reason why you need to use the public ledger to implement microtransactions at all. So companies are moving to other technology.

SatoshiPay is said to be moving to IOTA, which is a blockchain-inspired system targeting the Internet of Things. IOTA implements a cryptographically secured peer-to-peer network, with their own protocol and data structures. They argue that transaction fees will be very low, or even zero.

Actually, the IOTA protocol and data structures are completely different from Nakamoto [2]. IOTA is based on familiar concepts used in large scale data systems, with a peer to peer twist inspired by Bitcoin. They use cryptography and the idea of consensus, but in a way that allows a lot more throughput, along with other interesting features such as smooth offline operation (i.e., you can cut off part of the transactions and merge them back later).

There are some funky things about the protocol (e.g., there is a knob for how confident you want to be about the validity of the transaction tree) but there are no miners and therefore no transaction fees.

IOTA aims to do IOT things, smart machines bargaining with each other. (No puny humans involved!) They call thing the Economy of Things or something like that. But what they have built should also be good for something like SatoshiPay.

As in many Bitcoin use cases, people using SatoshiPay or services that use it will never notice the transaction technology behind the scenes.

Will we finally see digital microtransactions? I dunno. But it won’t be on the public Bitcoin blockchain, that seems clear.

So this use case for blockchain might come true, but, as IOTA puts, with No Blocks and No Chains.

Inspired by Bitcoin, yes.

But implemented by more sophisticated technology, designed for this use case.

  1. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009.
  2. Dominik Schiener, A Primer on IOTA (with Presentation), in IOTA Blog. 2017.
  3. Chuan Tian,  SatoshiPay to Stop Using Bitcoin Blockchain for Micropayments Coindesk.July 17 2017,



Cryptocurrency Thursday

Turtlabot Follow Me Demo

Turtlebots are low cost, open source robots. Glancing through the tutorials, there is a lot of state of the art stuff here, including serious mapping, navigation and autonomous driving!!

The latter features are showed off in the “follow me” demo.

Neat. And, theoretically, you can DIY!

I haven’t had the time and energy to get into turtlebots, but I really should.

The ‘follow me’ demo is nice, but what I really want is a flock of raptors to follow me like this. A posse of small fast, toothy, bipeds. Maybe in a vee instead of a line. Don’t mess with me!


PS. Wouldn’t “My Raptor Posse” be a great name for a band?

How about, “A Rip of Raptors“?  Or “Personal Raptor

Or, “The Robot Raptor Revue“.


Robot Wednesday

Freelancer’s Toolkits?

The members who are “managed” by cool coworking software are mainly freelancers and independent contractors. These workers rent their workplace, and bring their own tools. So what is in their tool box?

Michael Katz has some suggestions for what you should have [1] .

Actually, his list are pretty simple, and mostly about being organized, getting “more efficient we can get managing repeatable, often mundane aspects of our work”.

  • Directions to my office
  • Standardized cards (e.g., “Thank you for the referral”)
  • Service descriptions (i.e., what you do)
  • New client questionnaire
  • Newsletter sign-up form

I note that all of these things are non-digital though all of them can be implemented in digital forms. In fact, every one of these ideas predate the ubiquitous internet.  They are about good business practices and relationships, not about technology.

Jeriann Ireland offers another take on this question, suggesting “The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers[2].

  • A Ready-to-Go Resume Template (and use LinkedIn to get it out there
  • A Decent Phone Plan (with call waiting)
  • A Dedicated Work Space (and separate computers and accounts)

This is a good list, and definitely a sound foundation.

His discussion of the “dedicated” workspace captures the essential psychology “Whether it’s a home office, a shared office space, or even a corner in your home, have a place where you only store work-related paperwork and itemsNaturally, “a dedicated workspace” might be membership in a local coworking space.

(I did raise an eyebrow at the comment that this is “the same concept as not spending non-sleeping time in your bed.”  Hmm.  I should never do anything in bed except sleep?)

Anyway, together these articles make clear that much of the challenge of freelancing is to be well organized, and to have a clear understanding of your own work processes.

“Templates” seem to be an important thing.  Basically, a template represents your understanding of how you work, and, as Katz puts it, the mundane and repeatable aspects.

I think this is a good point. Furthermore, the templates these guys mention most prominently are the “scripts” used for finding gigs and making contracts. There are other repeatable processes, such as billing, but connecting with new clients needs to be personal—so you need customized conversations.  

All this sounds like work!

Worse, it sounds exactly like “looking for a job”—which it is.  Gig workers have to really, really good at job hunting because they have to do it all the time. 

(Yet another reason I’ll never be a good Freelancer:  I absolutely hate, hate, hate job hunting.)

1. Jeriann Ireland, The essential toolkit for minimalist (or broke) freelancers, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.

2. Michael Katz,, What’s in your tool chest?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017.

What is Coworking? It’s Partly About Office Management

Coworking spaces have emerged as one of the places where independent workers and small startups choose to work

Coworking is enabled by ubiquitous digital technology, which makes it possible for workers to “bring your own device”, and to work from pretty much anywhere.

The same technology has enabled office managers to operate not only anywhere, but at very small scales. From the point of view of the operator, the challenge of coworking is to be able to slice up workspace into one worker pieces, and very short time periods. Some coworking spaces are willing to rent a single desk for an hour at at time.

This granularity, and a desire to offer an array of packages, means that the office management must be extremely efficient and inexpensive. These processes have been automated for decades, of course, But now there are an increasing number of packages designed for the lowest budget operations, including coworking spaces.

Not only can workers work anywhere, it’s pretty easy to set up almost any space to be a rental workspace.

For example, Andy Alsop of “The” (maker of office management products) wrote about the “5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions [1] .His list gives us an idea of the tasks that are commonly needed.

The five products listed may be a bit out of date, there will surely be many more entries in the intervening years.

But the important thing is, what do coworking space operators need?

The basic core is managing memberships and payments. The latter is a straightforward billing/invoicing task. The former combines elements of property leasing with customer relations, and different tools offer different features for this.

Nexudus (one of the biggest players) manages stuff like events, newsletters, and also printers and so on. Optix also has member-to-member messaging (redundant with Facebook etc.?) and a market for desk space. Coworkify has sales and marketing features (i.e., for recruiting members to fill the desks). Happy Desk has wifi network management and door access features.

All of the systems are designed to be sold or leased at low cost to even the smallest operator.

I note that this article is in the blog of The Receptionist, a company that makes “The Receptionist for iPad”, a versatile, effective and easy-to-use visitor management system available”. This suite of features includes annoying stuff like logging visitors to your office, integrated with deeper annoying features that connect these logs with security or sales data bases. All on an iPad connected to cloud services.

Overall, it is clear that complex business office processes are available to pretty much anyone.

In the case of the products that are specialized for coworking, the business features are combined with social features (e.g., mail and chat groups), PR stuff (event management, “customer relationship” stuff), and technical managements (wifi, doors, printers).


This job is harder than I realized.

But the best thing about these products, to my mind, is that they enable a good community leader to provide professional quality business services with relatively little effort. This frees time and energy for the most important part, schmoozing, connecting, teaching, and listening.

  1. Andy Alsop, 5 Best Coworking Office Space Management Software Solutions, in The Receptionist – Blog. 2015.


What is Coworking?

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

Book Review: “The Delirium Brief” by Charles Stross

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

And another fantasy from Britain…

As regular readers know, the Laundry Files are far from over.  Dark forces are gathering, and breaking through into everyday reality.  The defense forces are overstretched and beleaguered.

The Delirium Brief continues the story, starting from the fallout of the events recounted n The Nightmare Stacks. You can’t level half of Leeds without the public noticing, so there are many consequences.

This latest file is pretty dark and desperate.  It gave me nightmares.

This book is every bit as good as we expect from Charlie, with lots of witty banter and clever technology jokes.  The cast of characters is outstanding, and the catastrophe binds people deeply and brings out the best in even the little guys.

Stross works in his own brand of political satire, as well, though it isn’t really very funny in this case.  It’s one thing to joke about demonic forces taking over the government, it’s another thing when demonic forces actually are taking over.

But the events are so grim, as grim as grim gets.  Losses are heavy, and evil seems certain to win.  All seems lost.

But the story is not over.

One thing is for sure:  the Laundry Files put our own little troubles in perspective.  It could be worse.  A lot worse.

Get it. Read it.  But maybe not just before bedtime.

1. Charles Stross, The Delirium Brief, New York, Tom Doherty Association, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews