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

The Saturday Currents, OR: Why Care?

I prefer pictures of food to pictures of myself, but, since my phone stopped charging and started shocking people (along with emitting a lovely BURNING smell) you get old stock footage or Photo Booth for the time being.

And now, the currents:

  • Currently Reading: Merida, Chasing Magic (because I want to understand children’s books better, and I like the drawing of Merida’s awesome red hair which is an inspiration for my drawings of Serendipity) and The Cognitive Neurosciences, Fifth Edition (because I am working on a project on the engineering applications of consciousness research, and research on the neural correlates of consciousness has exploded in the last twenty years).
  • Currently Rereading: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (because Lent), Planning Algorithms by Lavalle and Reinforcement Learning by Sutton and Barto (because my robot navigation research is heating up and I want to understand the connections of reinforcement learning and classical planning, both of which have related but different ideas of value iteration; also because I’m planning on coding a small toy DQN to help me better understand the larger machinery I use at work).
  • Currently Dreading: Finishing my taxes, and finishing my edits on Shattered Sky by David Colby. Both so late! Sorry.
  • Currently Missing: My wife, on a business trip; my cats, at home waiting for me to finish up lunch, shift gears, and go home to go through The Tax Pile.

Why do these things matter? Why should you care? I know some people could care less about the incessant Facebook updates by people saying where they are and what they are doing. Some people I know even call sharing updates humblebragging as a way of shitshaming people into shutting up. (Hey guys! You know who you are. Message from me to you: Fuck off, kthanksbai.)

Not me. I like seeing people say what they’re up to; I like the birthday wishes on Facebook or the posts by famous writers saying, “ugh, I can has no brain today, here is a picture of a cat”. I still remember after my Aunt Kitty died sharing on Facebook my last picture of her, and all the people I knew who showed up at the funeral only because I had posted it.

It’s human and natural to share with each other what we are doing. It lets each of us know that we aren’t alone dealing with the good or bad. If status updates aren’t the thing you’re into, get off Facebook or Twitter. There’s nothing wrong with that: I know many people have done it and have felt better for doing so.

For me, there are so many people I only stay connected to because we have that instant means of connection. And (ssh: between you and me) there’s always my ulterior motive: the more I write, the better I get at writing, and the more I discover and perfect my own voice. And just about everyone I know who does that just gets more interesting the longer that they do it.

That’s why I’m currently … blogging.

Hit save, then publish.

-the Centaur

Overcoming Writer’s Block in Two Pages

SO! I’ve written about overcoming writer’s block before, though that draft post never seems to have been finished, and, regardless, I couldn’t find it when I was generating handouts for my latest writer’s block class at Clockwork Alchemy. So I generated some ENTIRELY NEW HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block, which I want to share with you today! The first advice, is, of course, just write!

Write! The first, best and last advice: Write. Just write! Write anything at all. Don’t wait for inspiration or the muse—just write! Don’t stop. Don’t think. Force yourself to write something. Put words on the page even if they are not the words you want. The cognitive skill of writing is so complicated that you need to get good enough at it that the act of writing doesn’t get in the way of the act of creating. Write “bla bla bla” if you have to. Trust me, you’ll get bored with that soon. Because the physical act of writing itself is has an almost magical effect of inspiring a new stream of words that you can put on the page. If you can’t think of anything, just write “I am blocked” and describe your feelings about it. That’s worth something. If you don’t know the answers, write the questions. Regardless of what you write, the answer to feeling blocked is to write. Just write!

Beyond the pep talk, I added some references to books on writer’s block – but also extracted some of the findings into a new acronym representing the way that writers who are blocked consciously can torpedo themselves: ERASED, because that’s what it feels like writer’s block is doing to your words!

  • Early Editing: Editing while writing can paralyze you.
    Write your draft first, edit it later!
  • Rigid Rules: “Rules” about composition are guidelines.
    Break the rules in your draft!
  • Awful Assumptions: We often assume writing must be perfect.
    Feel free to write your way!
  • Strategic Shortcomings: Complex projects can overwhelm us.
    Stretch your planning muscles!
  • Excessive Evaluation: Don’t grade our own writing too harshly.
    Finish your draft, then improve it!
  • Discordant Directives: Rules sometimes contradict each other.
    Be willing to make tradeoffs!

There are four interventions recommended for dealing with this kind of block; don’t try just one, try them all together:

  • Start Free Writing: Take on free writing like morning pages.
  • Develop a Writing Habit: Pick a regular day and time to write.
  • Stop Beating Yourself Up! Stop negative self-talk about writing!
  • Get Social Support: Find a writing group or writing buddy.

But all of those are symptoms of what’s essentially a block to the cognitive skill of writing. Sometimes writers face emotional trauma, and that’s OK: take the time you need to deal with your issues. And sometimes, actual chemical and neurological things interfere, so if you suspect deeper issues, please, feel free to recruit help to deal with whatever’s  the problem.

All of this and more are in the HANDOUTS on Overcoming Writer’s Block. Enjoy!

-the Centaur

Good Friday Vigil

Good Friday Vigil at Saint Stephen’s in-the-Field. We dress down the church and set up a bare wood cross and labyrinth, and encourage people to sign up to stay and pray so we have coverage all night.

I am a night owl, so I signed up for 1 a.m. through 2 a.m. So why am I here with a cough at 2:45 a.m. when I have an early-for-me meeting tomorrow? Someone changed my slot without telling me, to 2 a.m. through 4 a.m.

So I had the double pleasure of waiting fifteen minutes in the cold for the shift change (while I confirmed, via Google Docs history, that I was not misremembering my time), finding out that the person inside was still only partially through their two hour shift, going home to crash, and coming back to wait in the colder cold again while the previous person ran over. (The irony of the sleeping apostles is not lost on me).

This has been my least effective Lent in recent memory. I went to Ash Wednesday service to get ashes, only to get quizzed about it by my favorite server at one of my favorite restaurants, who then to my dismay turned into an insulting, manipulative proselytizer. I have had a surprising share of similar bad reactions with people leaving me more rattled about how I treat and react to people (even though I was never the aggressor) than focused on God or reading the Bible. Visiting the sick has not worked as my friend who is hurt the most is too touch and go for visitors. And giving up alcohol for Lent proved more of an inconvenience than a prompt for reflection.

And yet, like going to church on Sunday, or volunteering for the church Vestry, or reading the Bible, the Vigil is serving its function: to draw my attention back to God.

May God’s peace, which passes all understanding, be with you always.

-the Centaur

Dave, We’re On Your Side

The biggest “current” in my mind is the person I am currently worried about, my good friend and great Game AI developer Dave Mark. Dave is the founder of the GDC AI Summit … but was struck by a car leaving the last sessions at GDC, and still is in the hospital, seriously injured.

Dave is a really special person. I’ve been going to GDC longer than Dave, but it was he (along with my friend Neil Kirby) who drew me out of my shell and got me to participate in the Game AI community, which is a super important part of my life even though I don’t do Game AI for my day job.

Dave’s friends and family have set up a Go Fund Me to help cover his medical expenses and the travel and other expenses of his family while he remains in the hospital in the Bay Area. I encourage you all to help out – especially if you’ve ever played a game and found the AI especially clever.

Dave, you’re in our prayers …

-the Centaur

Pictured: Dave (on the right) and friends.

Just Checking in on the Currents

SO! Hey! GDC and Clockwork Alchemy are over and I’m not dead! (A joke which actually I don’t find that funny given the circumstances, which I’ll dig into in just a moment). Strangely enough, hitting two back-to-back conferences, both of which you participate super heavily in, can take something out of your blog. Who knew?

But I need to get better at blogging, so I thought I’d try something new: a “check-in” in which I try to hit all the same points each time – what am I currently writing, editing, programming, etc? For example, I am currently:

  • Listening To: Tomb Raider soundtrack (the original).
  • Reading: Theoretical Neuroscience (book).
  • Writing: “Death is a Game for the Young”, a novella in the Jeremiah Willstone multiverse.
  • Editing: SPECTRAL IRON, Dakota Frost #4.
  • Reviewing: SHATTERED SKY, Lunar Cycle #2 by David Colby.
  • Researching: Neural Approaches to Universal Subgoaling.
  • Programming: A toy DQN (Deep Q Network) to stretch my knowledge.
  • Drawing: Steampunk girls with goggles.
  • Planning: Camp Nanowrimo for April, ROOT USER, Cinnamon Frost #3.
  • Taking on: Giving up alcohol for Lent.
  • Dragging on: Doing my taxes.
  • Spring Cleaning: The side office.
  • Trying to Ignore: The huge pile of blogposts left over from GDC and CA.
  • Caring For: My cat Lenora, suffering from cancer.
  • Waiting For: My wife Sandi, returning from a business trip.

Whew, that’s a lot, and I don’t even think I got them all. Maybe I won’t try to write all of the same “currents” every time, but it was a useful exercise in “find something to blog about without immediately turning it into a huge project.”

But the biggest “current” in my mind is the person I am currently worried about, my good friend and great Game AI developer Dave Mark. Dave is the founder of the GDC AI Summit … but was struck by a car leaving the last sessions at GDC, and still is in the hospital, seriously injured.

More in a moment.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Butterysmooooth sashimi at Izakaya Ginji in San Mateo from a few days ago, along with my “Currently Reading” book Theoretical Neuroscience open to the Linear Algebra appendix, when I was “Currently Researching” some technical details of the vector notation of quadratic forms by going through stacks and stacks of books, a question which would have been answered more easily if I had started by looking at the entry for quadratic forms in Wolfram’s MathWorld, had I only known at the start of my search that that was the name for math terms like xWx.

Enter Colaboratory (AKA “A Spoonful of the Tracking Soup”)

As an author, I’m interested in how well my books are doing: not only do I want people reading them, I also want to compare what my publisher and booksellers claim about my books with my actual sales. (Also, I want to know how close to retirement I am.)

In the past, I used to read a bunch of web pages on Amazon (and Barnes and Noble too, before they changed their format) and entered them into an Excel spreadsheet called “Writing Popularity” (but just as easily could have been called “Writing Obscurity”, yuk yuk yuk). That was fine when I had one book, but now I have four novels and an anthology out. This could take out half an a hour or more, which I needed for valuable writing time. I needed a better system.

I knew about tools for parsing web pages, like the parsing library Beautiful Soup, but it had been half a decade since I touched that library and I just never had the time to sit down and do it. But, recently, I’ve realized the value of a great force multiplier for exploratory software development (and I don’t mean Stack Exchange): interactive programming notebooks. Pioneered by Mathematica in 1988 and picked up by tools like iPython and its descendent Jupyter, an interactive programming notebook is like a mix of a command line – where you can dynamically enter commands and get answers – and literate programming, where code is written into the documents that document (and produce it). But Mathematica isn’t the best tool for either web parsing or for producing code that will one day become a library – it’s written in the Wolfram Language, which is optimized for mathematical computations – and Jupyter notebooks require setting up a Jupyter server or otherwise jumping through hoops.

Enter Google’s Colaboratory.

Colab is a free service provided by Google that hosts Jupyter notebooks. It’s got most of the standard libraries that you might need, it provides its own backends to run the code, and it saves copies of the notebooks to Google Drive, so you don’t have to worry about acquiring software or running a server or even saving your data (but do please hit save). Because you can try code out and see the results right away, it’s perfect on iterating ideas: no need to re-start a changed program, losing valuable seconds; if something doesn’t work, you can tweak the code and try it right away. In this sense Colab has some of the force multiplier effects of a debugger, but it’s far more powerful. Heck, in this version of the system you can ask a question on Stack Overflow right from the Help menu. How cool is that?

My prototyping session got a bit long, so rather than try to insert it inline here, I wrote this blog post in Colab! To read more, go take a look at the Colaboratory notebook itself, “A Sip of the Tracking Soup”, available at: https://goo.gl/Mihf1n

-the Centaur

 

Why I’m Solving Puzzles Right Now

When I was a kid (well, a teenager) I’d read puzzle books for pure enjoyment. I’d gotten started with Martin Gardner’s mathematical recreation books, but the ones I really liked were Raymond Smullyan’s books of logic puzzles. I’d go to Wendy’s on my lunch break at Francis Produce, with a little notepad and a book, and chew my way through a few puzzles. I’ll admit I often skipped ahead if they got too hard, but I did my best most of the time.

I read more of these as an adult, moving back to the Martin Gardner books. But sometime, about twenty-five years ago (when I was in the thick of grad school) my reading needs completely overwhelmed my reading ability. I’d always carried huge stacks of books home from the library, never finishing all of them, frequently paying late fees, but there was one book in particular – The Emotions by Nico Frijda – which I finished but never followed up on.

Over the intervening years, I did finish books, but read most of them scattershot, picking up what I needed for my creative writing or scientific research. Eventually I started using the tiny little notetabs you see in some books to mark the stuff that I’d written, a “levels of processing” trick to ensure that I was mindfully reading what I wrote.

A few years ago, I admitted that wasn’t enough, and consciously  began trying to read ahead of what I needed to for work. I chewed through C++ manuals and planning books and was always rewarded a few months later when I’d already read what I needed to to solve my problems. I began focusing on fewer books in depth, finishing more books than I had in years.

Even that wasn’t enough, and I began – at last – the re-reading project I’d hoped to do with The Emotions. Recently I did that with Dedekind’s Essays on the Theory of Numbers, but now I’m doing it with the Deep Learning. But some of that math is frickin’ beyond where I am now, man. Maybe one day I’ll get it, but sometimes I’ve spent weeks tackling a problem I just couldn’t get.

Enter puzzles. As it turns out, it’s really useful for a scientist to also be a science fiction writer who writes stories about a teenaged mathematical genius! I’ve had to simulate Cinnamon Frost’s staggering intellect for the purpose of writing the Dakota Frost stories, but the further I go, the more I want her to be doing real math. How did I get into math? Puzzles!

So I gave her puzzles. And I decided to return to my old puzzle books, some of the ones I got later but never fully finished, and to give them the deep reading treatment. It’s going much slower than I like – I find myself falling victim to the “rule of threes” (you can do a third of what you want to do, often in three times as much time as you expect) – but then I noticed something interesting.

Some of Smullyan’s books in particular are thinly disguised math books. In some parts, they’re even the same math I have to tackle in my own work. But unlike the other books, these problems are designed to be solved, rather than a reflection of some chunk of reality which may be stubborn; and unlike the other books, these have solutions along with each problem.

So, I’ve been solving puzzles … with careful note of how I have been failing to solve puzzles. I’ve hinted at this before, but understanding how you, personally, usually fail is a powerful technique for debugging your own stuck points. I get sloppy, I drop terms from equations, I misunderstand conditions, I overcomplicate solutions, I grind against problems where I should ask for help, I rabbithole on analytical exploration, and I always underestimate the time it will take for me to make the most basic progress.

Know your weaknesses. Then you can work those weak mental muscles, or work around them to build complementary strengths – the way Richard Feynman would always check over an equation when he was done, looking for those places where he had flipped a sign.

Back to work!

-the Centaur

Pictured: my “stack” at a typical lunch. I’ll usually get to one out of three of the things I bring for myself to do. Never can predict which one though.