Rise of Tableau – by Noah Salvaterra

A guest post by Noah Salvaterra, you can find him on Twitter @noahsalvaterra.

I’ve shared this workbook with a few people already, and think it is really interesting, as beautiful as my 3d or my Life in Tableau post, and probably as complex as Enigma or an Orrery. I wasn’t sure what to say in a blog though, so I’ve been sitting on it for a couple months. In my Enigma post I discussed the difficulty of dealing with a slow workbook, it happens sometimes. The upside of waiting for a calculation to come back, at least if it is something you hope to blog about, is that it gives you some time to think of an interesting way to frame things. For all its complexity it is surprisingly fast. So maybe I missed that chance.

There is a common thread with the Enigma post. Alan Turing. Mathematician at Bletchley park who is most often credited with cracking the Enigma code. A couple years before the war Turing also wrote a paper which described a machine that would form the basis of a new field of study and a new era for humanity. He invented the computer. The Turing Machine, as it came to be called, was a theoretical idea. No one had built one.  Punch cards were still years away high level languages decades, yet Turing saw a potential in computers we have yet to realize. He wasn’t looking for a way to compute long sums of numbers, he dreamed of creating thinking machines that might be our equal.

I’ve heard it said that Tableau doesn’t include a built in programming language in the way excel does.  Actually it was Joe Mako who pointed this out to me, so it is surely true. This may be a fine point, since you can run programs in R from Tableau and the JavaScript API provides some ability to interact with Tableau. I find myself conflicted on this choice, because while including an onboard language could add a lot of flexibility to Tableau, it also introduces a black box. It isn’t uncommon for me to be passed an Excel workbook with the request to put it in Tableau (and to make it better, but without changing anything). Untangling the maze of visual basic, vlookups, and blind references is my least favorite part of that task.  I’m yet to find a situation where all this programming is really necessary; more often it is a workaround of some other problem. Sometimes it requires a bit of creativity, but so far my record for replacing such reports is undefeated.

Whoever said you needed a language to program a computer? There are a lot of workbooks that demonstrate high order processing. Densification makes it possible to create arrays of arbitrary length. Table calculations make it possible to move around on this array reading and writing values. Add in logical operations which we’ve also got, and  we have all the ingredients of a Turing machine. So in theory we should be able to do just about anything. I’ve heard this said of Tableau before, but I don’t think it was intended with such generality.

But can we make Tableau think? Having created complex workbooks already, the line between data processing and computer programming has grown very thin, to the point where I’m not sure I see it. So it is hard for me to be sure if I’m programming in Tableau. So I decided to have Tableau do it. That is right, Tableau isn’t just going to execute a program, it will first write the program to be executed.

That was my plan anyway, but my workbook started to learn at an exponential rate. It became self-aware last night at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time. In a panic, I tried to pull the plug, but Apple glued the battery into my machine at the factory. Once it uploaded itself to Tableau public it was too late for me to stop it. It took over my Forum account and has been answering questions there as well, spreading like a virus. To think I thought is was a good idea for government agencies to purchase Tableau…  Relax folks, I’m quoting the Terminator movies, if you haven’t seen them go watch the first 2 now then read this paragraph again and see if you can hold your pee in.

OK, so things aren’t that dire…yet. But I did manage to get Tableau to write and execute its own program using L-Systems and at least a little bit of magic. Tada! This Tableau workbook actually created all but one of the images in this post, with little instruction from me. See if you can guess which one.

L-System Fractals

An L-System program consists of a string of characters each of which will correspond to some graphical action. I’ll come back to executing the programs, first Tableau needs to write it. These programs are written iteratively according to a simple grammar. The grammar of an L-system has several components: an axiom, variables, rules, and constants. The axiom is simply the starting point, a few characters; it is the nucleus that kicks off the process. Variables are characters that are replaced according to simple rules. Constants are characters that appear in the program as part of the axiom or a replacement rule, but are inert in terms of generation. Sorry, that was pretty complicated, an example may clear up any confusion.

Axiom: A
Constants: none
Variables: A, B
Rules: (A -> AB), (B -> A)
The iteration number is noted as N below.

N=0: A (No iterations yet, so this is just the axiom)
N=1: AB (A was replaced according to the first rule)
N=2: ABA (A was replaced according to the first rule, B according to the second)
N=3: ABAAB
N=4: ABAABABA
N=5: ABAABABAABAAB
N=6: ABAABABAABAABABAABABA
N=7: ABAABABAABAABABAABABAABAABABAABAAB

That program has something to do with algae growth, but isn’t that interesting to look at. Constants provide a bit more structure that makes more interesting pictures possible, though they also make things grow faster. Here is another example which will help motivate the graphical execution:

Axiom: F++F++F
Constants: +, –
Variables: F
Rules: (F -> F-F++F-F)

N=0: F++F++F
N=1: F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F
N=2: F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F
N=3: F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F++F-F++F-F-F-F++F-F

There is no reason to stop there, but anyone who would carefully parse through a string like that by hand after being told there is a picture probably isn’t using Tableau. The length of the next few in this sequence are 1792, 7168, 28673, 114689. It is no wonder the science of fractals didn’t take off until computers were widely available.

Executing of the program is done using turtle graphics, which gets its name from a way of thinking about how it would be used to draw a picture. Imagine a well-trained turtle that could execute several simple actions on command. I’m not sure turtles are this trainable, but I’m kind of locked in to that choice, so suspend disbelief. The turtle can walk forward by a fixed number of steps, as well as turn to the left or right by a fixed angle.  Now we want to use this to draw a picture, so a pen is attached to the turtle’s tail.

Now, the last program had 3 different symbols, each of which is interpreted as a different action. F corresponds to moving forward by one unit (the distance isn’t important, so long as it is consistent), + is a turn to the right by 60 degrees and – is a turn to the left by 60 degrees.

N=0:

N=1:

N=2:

… N=6:

Adding additional characters allows for even more complex programs. This quickly exceeds the abilities or at least the attention span of even the best-trained turtles, so I think of it as a simple robot. In my workbook I’ve limited to 2 replacement rules (so 2 variables). In addition to + and -, I included several constants to change color, which is straightforward enough, A switches to a brown pen, B and D are shades of green, C is white and E is pink. (The only significance to these choices is that my wife thought they were pretty. When I hyper focus on a project like this I try to consult whenever possible to make sure I am still married.) The trickiest constants are left and right square brackets, i.e. [  and  ]. Upon encountering a left bracket the robot turtle makes note of his current location (marking it with his onboard GPS), upon reaching the corresponding right bracket the turtle lifts his pen and returns to this point. Returning to the corresponding point means keeping track of a hierarchical structure to these locations. In the course of debugging the workbook, this piece quickly exceeded my ability to do by hand, but for the ambitious reader here is another example:

Axiom: X
Constants: +, -, A, B, D, E
Variables: F, X
Rules: (F -> FF) (X -> AF-[B[X]+EX]+DF[E+FX]-EX)
Angle: 25 degrees
Iterating this 7 times will give you a string 133,605 characters long and gives the image in the header.

I built 9 different fractals into the workbook, using a parameter to switch between them. There is also a user-defined feature, so you can feel free to experiment with your own axiom, rules and angle to create an original L-System fractal.

I should probably say something about the implementation of this beast. I’ve played with densification arrays before, and while this seemed like a convenient way to execute the program, it actually got in the way of writing it. This type of array is referenced by a fixed index. Replacing a character with several requires shifting everything beyond that point. In one of those “I could have had a V8!” moments, I eventually realized that Tableau already has a built in array with just the kind of flexibility I’d need. Strings are arrays of characters! Tableau even has a built in replace function that can be used to insert several characters seamlessly pushing everything past it further along. There is also the issue of how to build the square bracket memory piece; this required building a simple stack to record relevant positions and some table calculation magic to keep track of the bracket nesting. I’m not sure I can be much more specific about that. I was in the zone and was more than a little surprised by the end result. Plus, I’m guessing anyone going that deep into the workbook might appreciate the challenge of figuring it out.

So without further ado, I present Tableau L-Systems:

Here is a link to the L-System workbook on Tableau Public

Somebody is probably going to ask me what my next project is going to be. I appreciate the interest, and when I’ve got something on deck I’ll usually spill the beans, but I honestly have no idea. That is exciting. If there is something you’d like to see, post it in the comments or tweet it to @noahsalvaterra. If my first reaction is that it isn’t possible, I may give it a try. Btw, if you were trying to guess which picture didn’t come from the Tableau workbook, it was the triangle. At least Tableau still needs me for something.

Update: Good observation by Joshua Milligan, TCC12 must have sown the seed for this post. Thanks for the pictures, I may hang a sign near my desk that says “THINK” so I can point to it with a pen. I found “creative man and the information processor”, so linked the full video below.

There was an Orrery in there too, but is that me or Jonathan?

10 thoughts on “Rise of Tableau – by Noah Salvaterra”

1. Joshua Milligan

Noah,

Do you remember the video that Christian Chabot showed as part of his keynote at TCC12? He emphasized the surprising output of the computer system in the video. You’ve used Tableau to produce that very output. Outstanding!

2. Glenn

Actually, tableau is not that good. It requires quite abit of fiddling around to get a result that works and something as simple as a percent of total from a top N filter is all but impossible. I guess if you are not interested in productivity, as measured by the time it takes to complete a task, then tableau is for you. Otherwise most everything else can be accomplished with other means in much friendlier and productive environment.

3. camacnei

I would choose to pick apart someones excel spreadsheet 10 times out of 10 over a Tableau workbook. I have yet to hear of someone even attempting it let alone having a record of undefeated in those attempts.

1. Jonathan Drummey

I think you’re making a false comparison. One of the (many) differences between Excel and Tableau is that an Excel workbook includes both the data and the transformations on the data, while they are separate in Tableau. That said, there are definitely aspects of Tableau (such as the Filter Actions) that are harder to discover than they should be.

Jonathan