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

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