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

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.


-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

On Her Way Out

In theory, mast cell tumors of the skin don’t kill cats, at least not directly. They can lead to lesions that can’t heal and further infections, but its MCT of the spleen or gastrointestinal tract that are really dangerous.

For Lenora, our precious little wimp cat, this cancer is aggressive enough that we may need to take proactive steps. She’s gone from one lump to 10 to 30 to 40 to 50 to 70, with a brief dip back to 40 after her surgery to remove her spleen … but now the MCT has exploded, going from 80 to 100 to probably hundreds at this point, many of them showing lesions and scabs.

The first two combinations of cancer treatments failed; this one does not seem to be having an effect. Lenora is still active, but she no longer wants to spend time indoors, instead choosing to find high spots on the exterior podium or the fence. I think she thinks fleas are eating her alive.

I fear she’s on her way out. I’d love to say “I know” but everything I’ve learned over the years tells me (a) you don’t really know and (b) foreclosing an opportunity in your mind is a precursor to getting it foreclosed in real life. We sometimes like to think that we’re tough minded people making hard decisions in the face of difficult circumstances, but if you’re that guy or gal, I have bad news for you: you’re selling yourself a line of bullshit.

Far too often we get tired of dealing with something and choose to perceive it as hopeless, then take all the bad decisions we need to in order to make the bad outcome we’ve decided upon happen, then telling ourselves “there’s nothing else we could have done.” This is particularly common with cars: cars rarely die until we decide to kill them by not maintaining them. It’s even more common with politics: the other guy’s plan rarely fails on its own until we take steps to sabotage it, just so we can then say “we told you so.”

With your health, or the health of a loved one, what does this translate into? Never give up. Stephen Hawking lasted something like five decades after his doctors told him he’d likely be dead, and he didn’t last that long by crawling into a bed and not fighting every step of the way. Sometimes heroic measures are not called for, but just giving up hope will make things far worse far faster.

So we’re here for you, Lenora, even if you’re on your way out.

Have a scritchy behind the ear. Yes. There you go.

-the Centaur

Camp Nanowrimo – Spellpunk: ROOT USER

Um, so, hi! I’m Cinnamon! (That’s me, below!)

And I’m supposed to tell you that my biographer, Anthony Francis, is working on my third book, ROOT USER, for Camp Nanowrimo! Camp is the sister challenge to the November challenge to write 50,000 words in a month, and that sounds crazy unless you are my brother and love writing words, and are not dyslexic and ADD and whatever, and what was I saying? SO! Anyway. My biographer’s busy writing, or something. So you get me! Except, um, I gots nothin’, except, hey, I’m a teenage weretiger, and this is my third book! The first two ain’t out yet, but this one has monsters and high school and kids straight out of Harry Potter and yummy yummy wereguys fightin’ over the me. Choice! I am awesome, if I do say so myself about myself. Hee hee!

What? Oh! Ok. My biographer is askin’ me to post an excerpt or somethin’, so, here goes:

I glowers. “Fine,” I says.

We steps up to the blockhouse surroundin’ the base of the mineshaft. Nri nods to the guard, makes a funny hand sign. The guard nods, opens the chain, lets us in—but as he puts the chain back, he flips down a sign that says, MAINTENANCE—OUT OF ORDER.

“This elevator seems to be out of order a lot lately,” I mutters. “Your doin?”

“Yes, but why do you care?” Nri asks, pullin’ out a key. “You have a teleporter—”

“Common knowledge, thanks to you,” I grumbles, and it’s true: Nri has no respect for my secrets, none at all, but he’s cagey as a wolf. “Now everyone wants to pop out in my den, every time you’re doin’ whatever you’re doin’—what are you doin’ down here, anyway?”

“Using the elevator’s special features,” Nri says, slidin’ the gate closed.

He inserts the key, turns it—and the elevator starts to go down.

“Hey!” I says, as the blockhouse recedes above us. “I thought this was ground zero!”

“Ground floor,” Nri corrects. “But no, it is not. The Werehold is a basement. This …”

“Sub-basement?” I asks hopefully, as the shaft recedes above us.

“I said I’d tell you on the surface,” Nri says. “I never said the surface of what.”

And then … the world turns upside down.

“Whooaoaaoaa!” I cries, as my feet lifts off the floor—and the elevator keeps descendin. Nri has moved to the side of the elevator, and grips the cage, turnin’ his body a hundred and eighty degrees, so his feet are pointin’ at the ceiling—and then I falls. Up! “Ow!”

Nri’s feet land on the ceilin’. I lands on my noggin.

Ow! Embarrasin’. Why’d you have to call up that bit, Mister Biographer, huh? Rip your face off, I oughtta. Grr. And stop calling me cute when I growl. A tiger, I am, not to be mocked by those who could be morsels—stop touslin’ my hair!

Grrrrr. Enjoy, or whatevers.

-Cinnamon, on behalf of the Centaur