Sometimes it only seems like a conversation

Having just finished having a great conversation with a good friend over dinner, it struck me how different a great conversation is with a friend than it is with some people I meet.

For example, at lunch today, I spotted a familiar looking fellow at the next table over. I didn’t quite recognize him, but as he was finishing his lunch, he turned to me and said, “You look damn familiar.”

As it turns out, we both were at the same restaurant a year ago, both on business trips – him with music, me with Dragon Con. We briefly caught up, and he mentioned moving away from California in the housing crisis.

He hit the can, and when he returned I got up, laptop in hand – my turn. He mentioned selling out just before the housing crash and recommending to all his friends that they cash out; I unfortunately had the opposite story.

He then said that he simply couldn’t turn down leaving – “It was like getting a free house!” I started to respond with a quote from a friend: “Planning plus preparation plus opportunity yields luck.”

I never got past “My friend once said.” The gentleman at the table continued his story as if I hadn’t spoken, talking for a full ten minutes about his wife, her mother, and all the houses that they had bought on credit.

It was like seeing a living slice of The Big Short while a vice was slowly squeezing my bladder. After an interminable period of ‘yes’es and ‘uh-huh’s, I finally found a point to excuse myself and beat a hasty retreat to the can.

Writing  in coffehouses and restaurants as I do, I encounter this from time to time: someone who comes up to talk to me, who appears to be using the standard form of normal conversations, but who really isn’t interested in a conversation at all, just in hearing themselves talk.

Now, I have friends that can go on a bit. Hell, I can be like that. But among friends we’ve all learned this and developed signals that mean “I gotta go,” and when that signal fires, all of us have learned to say, “Talk at ya later.”

I think the key difference is the reaction to a response. When talking to a blowhard like me, you may have to wait to get a word in edgewise, but the blowhard will then listen to you for a period of time.

This coffehouse phenomenon is something different. You can tell it’s happening most clearly when the person you’re talking to will let you get out one-word responses like “yes” or “no” or polite conversational “Oh reallys” and such, but as soon as you try to say anything back – anything of substance at all – they just talk over you as if you have not spoken.

I wonder what’s going on in their minds when they do that.

-the Centaur

Back to Dragon Con!

Hail, fellow adventurers! If you want to experience our world the way Jeremiah Willstone and her friends first experienced it, there’s no better way than to come to Dragon Con in Atlanta! I’ve been going to Dragon Con longer than almost any con – certainly longer than any still-running con – and after enough time here they put me on panels! And here they are:

  • Practical Time Travel for the Storyteller
    Sat 05:30 pm / Athens – Sheraton
    Panelists: Darin M. Bush, Michael J. Martinez, S.M. Stirling, Anthony Francis, Jack Campbell
    This panel discusses the real science behind time travel, as well as how these scientific theories can place both challenging and rewarding demands on the stories we tell. Time dilation, the grandfather paradox, and more will be explained as we discuss the stories that reference these theories.
  • Partners: Collaborating on Your Novel
    Sun 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Nancy Knight, Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Clay and Susan Griffith, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews
    When writers collaborate, the results can be great–or horrible. How do you insure that your collaboration turns out well?
  • Plotting or Plodding?
    Sun 02:30 pm / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Janny Wurts, Anthony Francis, Lee Martindale, Richard Kadrey, Laura Anne Gilman, Melissa F Olson
    It’s the story, stupid! Everybody loves a great story. This panel discusses how to create that unforgettable story roiling within you.
  • Magic Practitioners in Urban Fantasy: Witches and Warlocks
    Mon 10:00 am / Chastain 1-2 – Westin
    Panelists: Jeanne P Adams, David B. Coe, Linda Robertson, Kevin O. McLaughlin, Anthony Francis, Melissa F Olson
    Witches and warlocks in the genre range from being an accepted part of their communities to the most feared. Our panel of authors will discuss the characteristics of those in their works.
  • Write a Damn Good Book
    Mon 11:30 am / Embassy CD – Hyatt
    Panelists: Bill Fawcett, Peter David, E.K. Johnston, Diana Peterfreund, Anthony Francis

    Writers worry about all sorts of things, but the first thing to worry about is writing a great book. Here’s how.

Other fun things at the con are the Parade, the Masquerade, performances by the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, and, of course, The Cruxshadows. So come on down and hang out with 80,000 fans of fantasy and science fiction! Some of them may become your new best friends.

-The Centaur

Gettin’ a Move On

Well, the Nano climb is starting off great, for a switch! Fourth of July, and I’m already 800 words ahead of what my goal is for this time of the month.

Not bad, but then, I am on vacation. 🙂 An excerpt:

On our way out, I sighs. “That went … well—”

“It so very did not,” Karoo says, bouncing from rock to rock.

“What?” I says. “We learned a lot—”

“We learned nothing but that this so-called Huntswoman wants the Ere Mother dead—or worse!” Karoo snarls. “You learned nothing from the Huntswoman about the Ere Mother herself that I could not have told you, had you only asked—”

“Was she wrong about the spell that’s killing her?” I asks, and Karoo says nothing. “If you knew that, why didn’t you tell me?”

“You didn’t ask,” Karoo says.

“Well, maybe I should change that,” I says, “startin’ now. But I learned a lot—”

“A faerie queen flattered you by putting you through paces that would not have fazed the most junior adept in medieval times, when training meant something,” Karoo said. “You learned what you should have learned months or years ago in your training—”

“I have not been wand training for years,” I says. “Graffiti magic, three years, wand magic, more like one and a half. Actually, a bit closer to one—”

“So you’re hungry and she fed you,” Karoo says huffily. “One way and one way alone this creature is like the Li’ía Ní’qua I remember. You heard her banish me from her court, me, her consort? I loved her once, with all my heart. Now I hate her with equal fervor—”

“Don’t say that,” I says. “She’ll … she’ll eventually remember you—”

“Li’ía Ní’qua is dead,” Karoo says. “I never want to come back to this place again!”

Ouch, Karoo, that’s harsh! Especially coming from a cute glowing anthropmorphic fox.

-the Centaur

I<tab-complete> welcome our new robot overlords.

Hoisted from a recent email exchange with my friend Gordon Shippey:

Re: Whassap?
Gordon:
Sounds like a plan.
(That was an actual GMail suggested response. Grumble-grumble AI takeover.)

Anthony:
I<tab-complete> welcome our new robot overlords.

I am constantly amazed by the new autocomplete. While, anecdotally, autocorrect of spell checking is getting worse and worse (I blame the nearly-universal phenomenon of U-shaped development, where a system trying to learn new generalizations gets worse before it gets better), I have written near-complete emails to friends and colleagues with Gmail’s suggested responses, and when writing texts to my wife, it knows our shorthand!

One way of doing this back in the day were Markov chain text models, where we learn predictions of what patterns are likely to follow each other; so if I write “love you too boo boo” to my wife enough times, it can predict “boo boo” will follow “love you too” and provide it as a completion. More modern systems use recurrent neural networks to learn richer sets of features with stateful information carried down the chain, enabling modern systems to capture subtler relationships and get better results, as described in the great article  “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks“.

-the<tab-complete> Centaur

 

Camp Nano, July 2018 Edition

Well, so insanely busy, I haven’t posted in a while. But not for want of working on things that I want to post about! Most pressingly, my Camp Nano project for the July Camp of 2018, and what I hope is the last major chunk of the third book in the Cinnamon Frost series … SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER!

Cinnamon Frost, once-delinquent weretiger stray, is now a rising star in the secretive werekindred kingdom … until she unwittingly unleashes an ancient faerie monster and is banished to the human world as a result. As the monster wreaks havoc on human and werekin alike, Cinnamon must scramble to save herself, save her city – and save her mother, as the monster turns upon them all in its rage.

And, of course, the obligatory excerpt:

I clenches my fist. The fox shimmers, his magic going through my fingers; of course, it’s a magic projectia, not a holographic projection. Mom told me about this: an entombed court of faerie, and the warriors that went back to finish the job. I folds my hands to my breast.

“I’m sorry,” I says. “I knows the story. I just didn’t know it happened here too.”

“Only three of us were left,” the fox says. “My shattered body. The queen, entombed in layers of crystal too hard to be destroyed—though she freed herself and left us, I have no idea how. And the other, the Ere Mother, entombed half-alive, half-dead on the other side of the cavern; I have not seen her directly for centuries … until now.”

The hair creeps up on my spine: the cracking and scraping is louder now.

“Did you free her?” the fox asks. “Perhaps she will be grateful—”

I whirls. Behind the shattered iceberg, something looms, a glint of red—and a mammoth bony paw slams down to the iceberg’s right. Rock scrapes on rock, and the crystal-encased paw grinds against stone, formin’ and reshapin’, crystal planes flashin’ intermittently within as it rearchitects itself. Then the lumberin’ split head of the sloth-corpse roars into view, wobblin’ on a half-crystal, half-bone neck, its single red eye blazin’ like a laser.

“Maybe yes,” I says, “and looks like no!”

Red eye blazin’, the Ere Mother screams magic at me in a rasping bellow of rage.

Now, none of the Cinnamon Frost books have been published yet; since Cinnamon Frost #1, #2 and #3 are interleaved in time with Dakota Frost #4, #5, and #6, and since both are loose trilogies, I’ve been working on all six together, in a giant manuscript which would be close to 750,000 words if all put together. Oy! But the outcome is I understand the story much better, and when this giant Hexology is finally put out, I think it will be a much stronger story.

Onward!

-the Centaur

Pictured: a mockup cover for SPELLPUNK: ROOT USER, based on a picture of an eremotherium by Eden, Janine and Jim, and a picture of Doll’s Theater in Carlsbad Cavern picture by Daniel Meyer, both licensed for reuse with attribution on variants of the Creative Commons license.

Back to the Cone of Shame

Well, Gabby had his stitches out and his collar off for all of twelve hours before we were back in the emergency room. He was cleared for activity, but then re-opened the wound.

The lesson: I should have said something. I knew we were taking the stitches out and returning him to activity too soon; they doctor gave us a window of 10-14 days, but the technician scheduled us for a 10-day return. That day, I was a bit iffy about the stitches, but they went ahead and removed them. I clarified: is he ready for activity? Can he go out? They said yes.

Well, they were wrong, and I should have said something at the day of the original appointment scheduling, at least putting it off until Monday. Failing that, I should have said something before the stitches came out. Failing that, I should have used my own discretion and left the collar on for a few more days.

Failing that, I failed my cat.

The late-night emergency doc didn’t think the cut had reopened the underlying wound and that it didn’t warrant stitches … but it looks worse today. I kept him inside overnight and today; let’s see how he’s doing and whether I should exercise my discretion and take him back in.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Cancer cat, abscess cat, aka Lenora and Gabby.

PRM-RL Won a Best Paper Award at ICRA!

So, this happened! Our team’s paper on “PRM-RL” – a way to teach robots to navigate their worlds which combines human-designed algorithms that use roadmaps with deep-learned algorithms to control the robot itself – won a best paper award at the ICRA robotics conference!

I talked a little bit about how PRM-RL works in the post “Learning to Drive … by Learning Where You Can Drive“, so I won’t go over the whole spiel here – but the basic idea is that we’ve gotten good at teaching robots to control themselves using a technique called deep reinforcement learning (the RL in PRM-RL) that trains them in simulation, but it’s hard to extend this approach to long-range navigation problems in the real world; we overcome this barrier by using a more traditional robotic approach, probabilistic roadmaps (the PRM in PRM-RL), which build maps of where the robot can drive using point to point connections; we combine these maps with the robot simulator and, boom, we have a map of where the robot thinks it can successfully drive.

We were cited not just for this technique, but for testing it extensively in simulation and on two different kinds of robots. I want to thank everyone on the team – especially Sandra Faust for her background in PRMs and for taking point on the idea (and doing all the quadrotor work with Lydia Tapia), for Oscar Ramirez and Marek Fiser for their work on our reinforcement learning framework and simulator, for Kenneth Oslund for his heroic last-minute push to collect the indoor robot navigation data, and to our manager James for his guidance, contributions to the paper and support of our navigation work.

Woohoo! Thanks again everyone!

-the Centaur

Viiictory the Twentieth!

Hail, fellow adventurers! And now you know why you haven’t heard from me for a while: I was heads down finishing my wordcount for Camp Nanowrimo! And this is a very special one, because it marks the twentieth time I have won a National Novel Writing Month style challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month! Woohoo! When I started, I never thought I’d finish this many!

This was a difficult month for it. Sure, I just finished early, but that final push involved locking me in a downstairs room with my laptop until I finished so I could enjoy the rest of my vacation with my wife. And the push up to this point has been hard: my wife returning from vacation, with me scrambling to finish a spring cleaning gone awry before she got home. A cat being treated for cancer. An organization I’m volunteering with had an emergency that involved multiple meetings over the month. Major shifts and dustups at work. Robots, on the loose, being chased down the corridors. Ok, that last one isn’t real. Well, actually, it was, but it was much, much, much more prosaic than it sounds.

The upshot, seen above, is blood on the water (behind on my wordcount) for most of the month. And with the very last weekend of the month being my long-planned vacation in Monterey with my wife before she flies out on her next business trip, there was a very real danger that I wouldn’t make it. But my wife is awesome, and tolerated me taking out this first evening to do a massive push to get all my words done!

And now, sleep. But first, an excerpt:

“The Ere Mother is … not the most dangerous enemy I’ve ever faced,” I says. “Actually, she doesn’t rate really highly compared to the thing we found in the Vault of Nightmares, which was the real source of the magic that tried to burn down this city, Lady Scara—not me. But the Ere Mother is terribly dangerous, that I admit, Magus Meredith, Elder Jackson-Monarch. She’s terribly dangerous. But I did not ‘unleash’ her on the city. I went where my leadership told me to go and did what they told me to do, and the bottom dropped out under me. Yes, she came to life when I fell into the chambers of her court, but I strongly doubt that she was brought to life by a magic tiger butt. As unstable as that structure was—and it was still subsiding from time to time—the Ere Mother could have been unleashed at anytime, and we’d know even less about her than we do because I was down there investigatin’—as you all asked me to.”

I stands there, quietly.

“OH!” I says. “Um, yeah. That’s … that’s my report.”

“Well,” Mom says. “Thank you, First Mage, for your testimony—”

“Chair Frost?” Meredith says, raising his hand politely. “Are questions allowed?”

Mom blinks. “Always, as long as we maintain order. You have the floor.”

“Shoot,” I says. “Not literally—”

“How do you know the structure was still subsiding?” asked Meredith.

I stares at him. The hair rises on the back of my head. I thinks very, very fast.

“I heard it from the remaining member of the Dire Court,” I says. “A fox changeling, er, proto-fox changeling, at least I assume it was a changeling—er, anyway, we spoke, briefly, before the Ere Mother attacked. He mentioned a subsidence that, um.”

“Yes?” Meredith says, eyes gleaming.

“That, ah, uncovered his eye, so he wasn’t stuck in the dark anymore,” I says quietly. Meredith’s face falls, with true horror. “There was light down there, from runes. But after the Ere Mother’s attack … I don’t think there’s anything left of the fox fae anymore.”

“That’s … horrible,” Meredith says. “Do you remember what else you spoke about?”

“I will try to reconstruct a transcript. Mostly, he said shit like, ‘Oh, God’, and ‘Don’t hurt me.’” Somebody laughs, and I idly turns towards them and says, “Hey, I was pretty scared. You wanna be pretty scared to, I can always Change into what I looked like down there.”

“Cinnamon Stray Foundling Frost,” Mom says sternly, “if you eat anyone at this Council, you’re grounded!”

“Yes, Mom,” I says.

Ah, Cinnamon. You and your wacky hijinks with ancient faerie changelings!

Now … zzzzz…

-the Centaur