The Cats You Save … and the Cats You Make Comfortable

SO RECENTLY I had a very vivid dream in which my veterinarian said to me “There are some cats you save … and some you make comfortable.” I think the context behind that dream is worth a little unpacking, don’t you?

Loki the Loquacious is a cat that we saved. I came home one day to find him yowling and lethargic, sensitive to the touch yet unwilling to move, with a bloated feeling to the touch, and after a brief search online we rushed him to the nearby animal hospital who quickly diagnosed him with a urinary tract blockage, put him on a catheter, and nursed him back to health.

Now, he hates the urinary tract pet food we feed him and the occasional water droppers when he’s not drinking, but unless this outdoor cat gets too adventurous, he’s probably got a long life ahead of him.

Caesar the Conqueror is a cat that we made comfortable. He’d been made frail by a long battle with a thyroid condition when he decided to start peeing inappropriately indoors, so we had to make him an outdoors cat; but we were able to set up a relatively nice outdoor area for him. But then some nasal obstruction began interfering with his breathing, and he ultimately wheezed himself to death.

We kept him comfortable, of course, until he took a rapid turn downhill, and then we had him peacefully put to sleep in my arms.

As for Lenora the Cat … the jury is still out.

She’s a healthy-looking, happy-looking, active cat, and even though she from time to time got pencil-eraser sized moles, and once even a larger lump on a back leg, they were always benign … until a month ago. Then a new mole appeared, and another, and another, until she had dozens of the tiny, not-itchy, not-bleeding, not-discolored bumps all over her body. We took her to the doctor, who found two more walnut-sized lumps in her abdomen; biopsies revealed these to be mast cell tumors (MCT or mastocytoma).

Our doctor’s recommended regimen – a cortisone shot, followed by predisone and possibly other medications – tracks with what I’ve been able to research. Cortisone and similar drugs are recommended, and sometimes even can cure it, especially if it’s on the skin; but prognosis for lumps in the internals are more guarded – and she’s gotten another lump since the biopsy.

So now we’re researching, weighing the options of continuing treatment vs seeing an oncologist now (our vet is of the opinion that we’d have to wait a few weeks for an oncologist to get good readings on bloodwork because of the cortisone shot, but if I was an oncologist I’d want to see that third lump right now). Cats with this condition can last three years with surgery, a year with palliative care … or can die within weeks if it’s serious.

We don’t yet know if Lenora’s a cat we must make comfortable … or that we can save.

Here’s hoping.

-The Centaur

Dereliction of Duty

The following was written just before I left on Christmas vacation. The fact that I’m posting it three weeks later I think says something about the very point I was making in the article … so I’m going to let it stand as I wrote it the day that it happened. Here goes …

So, my cat died in my lap today, and while I didn’t kill it, I made it happen.

I’d love to say I have a lot of feelings about that.

The truth is, for me, departures leave a void. I don’t know what to feel, or don’t feel anything. Our precious little fraidy cat Caesar is gone, just gone, and the event passed without the reactions that movies and literature tell me happen when people go through life-changing events.

And this is a change, make no mistake. Almost twelve years ago, I and my wife agreed to adopt two rescue cats, Nero (the big black butch one) and Caesar (the skinny Holstein-cow one afraid of crinkling paper). They’d been turned out onto the street by a couple who got on drugs, and were being fostered by one of our bridesmaids, who already had three tiny, frail, elderly cats, and was forced to keep both cats in a bathroom. We had Nero and Caesar shipped from the East Coast to the West, and made them a part of our lives.

Nero’s long gone, victim of coyotes, but Caesar, with a different behavioral inheritance, survived and thrived, until a few years ago thyroid problems caused him to start to lose weight. He wasted away from twelve pounds to seven over the years, but we were mostly able to control it with medication, even when we ultimately had to put Caesar outside when, in his old age, he decided it was just fine to pee, like, wherever, because he’d reached the age where he didn’t have to give a damn anymore.

Bay Area winters are, of course, as brutal as cream puffs, but we nonetheless set up a huge gazebo enclosure in the back yard, where a tarp, pillows, heating pads and collection of chairs, tables and cat condos gave him a comfy throne for over a year.

But then he started wheezing. At first it was a cute little cooing-dove purr, and we thought he was just becoming more vocal. But it developed into a whistling, ticking sound as he labored for breath. Never comfortable on trips to the vet—always scared and panting, frequently pooping in the carrier even when in the best of health—on his last trip he was so freaked out they had to put him on oxygen. Tweaks to his medication and a cortisone shot helped for a while, but soon he was back where he started, with the recommendation of the vet that we make him comfortable.

And we did—or, mostly, my wife did.

She constantly reworked the outer area to make it a luxurious throne. A night owl herself, she fed him at all hours as, despite his decreasing weight of six and a half pounds, he became our most ravenous cat. And she stayed with him to brush him or sit with him or make him happy.

And me? I’m the one who dragged us out to the Bay Area to work for a search engine company, and I’m the one who has to work long hours keeping the lights on now that I’ve transitioned from search to robotics. I’m the one who chose to take on a huge writing project at which I’m barely started, and I’m the one who chose to take on helping found a small press. I seemingly can’t say no to projects, not because I want to do so many projects, but because that’s the only way I have found to make the projects that I do work on into successes—constantly seeking other avenues, other points of connections that make the work that I do more valuable. So now I find myself with an enormous stack of responsibilities that I can’t easily unwind.

For a variety of reasons, this has become even worse in the last six months, right when Caesar began his decline. Weekend after weekend I planned to spend time sitting in the back yard with the cats, and weekend after weekend I found myself working late at work or putting out fires at the small press. And week after week, I saw Caesar continue to decline.

I even knew this was likely to happen, and took a picture intending to blog about caring for elderly cats. But life intervened, and Caesar has now passed without me ever posting that post about his decline. I can’t look at those pictures without thinking about dereliction of duty.

Finally, I had enough, and started to arrange time to spend more time with Caesar. But it was too late. He’d grown too frail to clean himself, but no longer enjoyed brushing, pulling away from me when I tried to clean out his fur. He’d grown too scattershot to properly drink from poured water, but no longer enjoyed suckling my knuckle, making a few halfhearted attempts at the gesture that had calmed him so much as a young cat before wobbling away. I’d sit in the Adirondack chair in the back yard, hoping he’d come up and sit in my lap, and for a while he did, scrabbling his way up on me, getting a scratch, then shakily hop down and walk away. I eventually tried picking him up to put him in my lap, but he just wanted down. By the end, he barely tolerated a scratch behind the ears, and would quickly give up or walk away.

As Christmas approached, I worried that he wouldn’t be here when I got back from visiting my folks—but last night, we noticed vomit on his pillow. Today he wasn’t sitting in his throne, and I found him lying against the fence in the back yard, muzzle covered in vomit, drooling on his paws, unable to muster the energy to eat and unwilling to tolerate my touch.

I called in at work, woke up my wife, and we started calling for home pet euthanasia services. After half a dozen calls, we had an appointment arranged, and in the mid afternoon, a kindly veterinarian came by. Caesar had slid even further, with a soft, plaintive mew, and the vet gave him a sedative to help him sleep, and soon he was breathing easy for the first time in weeks.

Five minutes later, I was sitting on the porch, with Caesar in my lap. The vet shaved a small patch of fur on his leg to get to his vein, and injected the final shot. I put my hand on his chest as he breathed his last, and the vet listened until his tiny heart stopped. The vet left us an impressed paw print in clay and a tiny bundle of fur, and took our cat, wrapped up in a basket, looking more comfortable than he had in six months. Then Caesar was gone.

I wasn’t there when my dad died. I knew he was going, I even quit work so that I could be there for him while he was dying in Greenville, South Carolina, but for some reason at the time I felt like I had to periodically go back to my home town, Atlanta, Georgia, for what, I don’t remember now, to keep up the condo, or for my karate classes, or whatever, and on one of my returns to Greenville Dad passed while I was finding a parking space in the Greenville Memorial parking lot. Mom stood straight, but was in tears, and I knew what had happened; Dad’s body lay there, his eyes open, half lidded, his head turned partially aside, not rightable, the human body’s unconscious processes of self-stabilization and homeostasis finally ceased. So Dad was gone.

I wasn’t there when my grandmother died. She’d been in the nursing home for a while, and the doctors warned us that she’d had a sharp slide. We came out to see her. Mom, strangely, didn’t want to go into the room, seeming somehow semi-estranged from her, despite being about as good to her as she could have been. I went see Grandma; she was holding her hands tight, her eyes half-lidded, barely registering my presence. We waited a long time, then returned the next day, and waited again. Finally we went for a late lunch, and when we returned, it was over. And Grandma was gone.

I wasn’t there when my Aunt Kitty died. She’d been in decent health, despite a painful hip problem, and was jogging at the gym one day when she had a heart attack and fell off the treadmill. I was already on my way to Greenville for other reasons, but when I arrived, she again was barely holding on, each of her organs struggling to keep up, offloading their problems onto another. I parsed the jargon the doctors were saying and re-uttered the words to the family in words they understood, and they seemed comforted. She lay there, writhing a little; once her eyes, half-lidded, seemed to recognize me. But the family told me to leave, and after a few days, I flew back to the Bay Area. She passed the next day, and I flew back for the funeral. But Aunt Kitty was gone.

I wasn’t there when Gray Cat died. He was a feral who stayed in the yard, and we slowly started the process of trying to tame him. I was the only one who could feed him. I was the only one who could pet him, and I did it with gloves. But we had started to play together, and he started to warm—then got in through the cat door and attacked my wife. She had to fight him off with a broom, and we ultimately decided that he was dangerous enough that we had to put him to sleep. But it was my wife who took him to the pound. And Gray Cat was gone.

I wasn’t there when Caesar’s brother Nero died; as I said, he was taken by coyotes. He was an active outdoor cat, and we could even take him on walks without a leash. But that expanded his range, and he loved hunting on the watershed hill near our home. One night went out late at night, shortly before we heard the coyotes howl. He never came back. We posted flyers and walked the neighborhood, and checked shelters, but none of that mattered; we knew what happened the very next morning. And Nero was gone.

Nero’s death came without warning. I knew Caesar’s end was coming. I was determined to not let him die alone and afraid the way Nero did. So I kept close watch on him. I thought through the scenarios he might encounter and decided what I was and was not willing to put him through. The ultimate criteria, I decided, was if he could not breathe, if he could not eat, or if he could not get up; today, two of those three happened. So we acted.

I was there when Caesar died. We let him lie where he had chosen until the drugs put him into a peaceful sleep, and then I held him in my lap until he passed. And after he was gone, I asked my wife to go for a walk, and I unloaded to her about how I wanted to have been there more.

“No,” she said. “We are a team, and I was there for him, several times, every day, while you worked. While you spent your love on the cats that still wanted affection, I focused instead on Ceasar and gave him all the attention he needed. We gave him everything we could.”

I still don’t know what I feel about this. I must feel something: I’ve been prompted to write two thousand words on it. But the feeling is that of a void. An uncertainty of how I should react or how I should feel. The only thing I know is that I made sure I was there when Caesar died.

Epilogue: Caesar is gone. Now one of our other cats, Lenora, has erupted in tiny bumps and larger lesions, along with two big lumps in her abdomen. Is it cancer, and she’s soon to be gone? Is it simply cowpox, and she’ll be fine in a month or two? I don’t know. But I do know I am making a special effort to be with her, and with my wife, and my friends and family, while they are alive.

-the Centaur

Learning to Drive … by Learning Where You Can Drive

I often say “I teach robots to learn,” but what does that mean, exactly? Well, now that one of the projects that I’ve worked on has been announced – and I mean, not just on arXiv, the public access scientific repository where all the hottest reinforcement learning papers are shared, but actually, accepted into the ICRA 2018 conference – I  can tell you all about it!

When I’m not roaming the corridors hammering infrastructure bugs, I’m trying to teach robots to roam those corridors – a problem we call robot navigation. Our team’s latest idea combines “traditional planning,” where the robot tries to navigate based on an explicit model of its surroundings, with “reinforcement learning,” where the robot learns from feedback on its performance.

For those not in the know, “traditional” robotic planners use structures like graphs to plan routes, much in the same way that a GPS uses a roadmap. One of the more popular methods for long-range planning are probabilistic roadmaps, which build a long-range graph by picking random points and attempting to connect them by a simpler “local planner” that knows how to navigate shorter distances. It’s a little like how you learn to drive in your neighborhood – starting from landmarks you know, you navigate to nearby points, gradually building up a map in your head of what connects to what.

But for that to work, you have to know how to drive, and that’s where the local planner comes in. Building a local planner is simple in theory – you can write one for a toy world in a few dozen lines of code – but difficult in practice, and making one that works on a real robot is quite the challenge. These software systems are called “navigation stacks” and can contain dozens of components – and in my experience they’re hard to get working and even when you do, they’re often brittle, requiring many engineer-months to transfer to new domains or even just to new buildings.

People are much more flexible, learning from their mistakes, and the science of making robots learn from their mistakes is reinforcement learning, in which an agent learns a policy for choosing actions by simply trying them, favoring actions that lead to success and suppressing ones that lead to failure. Our team built a deep reinforcement learning approach to local planning, using a state-of-the art algorithm called DDPG (Deep Deterministic Policy Gradients) pioneered by DeepMind to learn a navigation system that could successfully travel several meters in office-like environments.

But there’s a further wrinkle: the so-called “reality gap“. By necessity, the local planner used by a probablistic roadmap is simulated – attempting to connect points on a map. That simulated local planner isn’t identical to the real-world navigation stack running on the robot, so sometimes the robot thinks it can go somewhere on a map which it can’t navigate safely in the real world. This can have disastrous consequences – causing robots to tumble down stairs, or, worse, when people follow their GPSes too closely without looking where they’re going, causing cars to tumble off the end of a bridge.

Our approach, PRM-RL, directly combats the reality gap by combining probabilistic roadmaps with deep reinforcement learning. By necessity, reinforcement learning navigation systems are trained in simulation and tested in the real world. PRM-RL uses a deep reinforcement learning system as both the probabilistic roadmap’s local planner and the robot’s navigation system. Because links are added to the roadmap only if the reinforcement learning local controller can traverse them, the agent has a better chance of attempting to execute its plans in the real world.

In simulation, our agent could traverse hundreds of meters using the PRM-RL approach, doing much better than a “straight-line” local planner which was our default alternative. While I didn’t happen to have in my back pocket a hundred-meter-wide building instrumented with a mocap rig for our experiments, we were able to test a real robot on a smaller rig and showed that it worked well (no pictures, but you can see the map and the actual trajectories below; while the robot’s behavior wasn’t as good as we hoped, we debugged that to a networking issue that was adding a delay to commands sent to the robot, and not in our code itself; we’ll fix this in a subsequent round).

This work includes both our group working on office robot navigation – including Alexandra Faust, Oscar Ramirez, Marek Fiser, Kenneth Oslund, me, and James Davidson – and Alexandra’s collaborator Lydia Tapia, with whom she worked on the aerial navigation also reported in the paper.  Until the ICRA version comes out, you can find the preliminary version on arXiv:

https://arxiv.org/abs/1710.03937
PRM-RL: Long-range Robotic Navigation Tasks by Combining Reinforcement Learning and Sampling-based Planning

We present PRM-RL, a hierarchical method for long-range navigation task completion that combines sampling-based path planning with reinforcement learning (RL) agents. The RL agents learn short-range, point-to-point navigation policies that capture robot dynamics and task constraints without knowledge of the large-scale topology, while the sampling-based planners provide an approximate map of the space of possible configurations of the robot from which collision-free trajectories feasible for the RL agents can be identified. The same RL agents are used to control the robot under the direction of the planning, enabling long-range navigation. We use the Probabilistic Roadmaps (PRMs) for the sampling-based planner. The RL agents are constructed using feature-based and deep neural net policies in continuous state and action spaces. We evaluate PRM-RL on two navigation tasks with non-trivial robot dynamics: end-to-end differential drive indoor navigation in office environments, and aerial cargo delivery in urban environments with load displacement constraints. These evaluations included both simulated environments and on-robot tests. Our results show improvement in navigation task completion over both RL agents on their own and traditional sampling-based planners. In the indoor navigation task, PRM-RL successfully completes up to 215 meters long trajectories under noisy sensor conditions, and the aerial cargo delivery completes flights over 1000 meters without violating the task constraints in an environment 63 million times larger than used in training.

 

So, when I say “I teach robots to learn” … that’s what I do.

-the Centaur

The Yearly Reboot

So one of the things I like to do each year, as part of my traditional visit to family over the holidays, is to drop in on a Panera Bread, pull out my notebook, review my plans for the previous year, and make plans for the new one.

As of the 7th of January, I still haven’t done this yet.

Shit happened last year. Good shit, such as really getting serious about teaching robots to learn; bad shit, such as serious illnesses in the pets in our family; and ugly shit which I’m not going to talk about until the final contracts are signed and everyone agrees everything is hunky and dory. And much of this went down just before the holidays, and once the holidays started, I cared a lot more about spending time with family and friends than sitting by myself in a Panera. (In all fairness, the holidays were easier when I lived in Atlanta and came up to see family many times a year, as opposed to only occasionally).

But I can recommend trying to do a yearly review. One year I decided to list what I wanted to do, both in the immediate future, in the coming year, in the coming 5 years, and in my life; and the next year, almost by chance, I sat down in the same Panera to review it. That served me well for more than a decade, and I find that even trying to do it helps me feel more focused and refreshed.

And so that’s precisely what I tried to do yesterday. I didn’t accomplish it – I still haven’t managed to “clear the thickets” of my TODO lists to get to the actual yearly plan, and I miss being able to take a whole afternoon at Panera doing this – but I did the next best thing, sitting myself down to a nice “reboot” dinner and treating myself to a showing of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

As someone said (a reference I read recently, but have been unable to find) the very act of doing something daily centers the mind.

Here’s to that.

-Anthony

Everything was on fire until earlier today

Not literally; we were far south of the literal fires, which just barely missed the homes of our friends. But so many other things have been going wrong that it felt like things were on fire … so no posts for a while, sorry.

But tonight, I got to the last chapter of Dakota Frost #6, SPIRITUAL GOLD.

I will likely finish this chapter Saturday.

That makes today a good day.

Time for some cake.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a cat break with Loki. Not how things look right now, but how I feel.

Yeah. That happened.

What you see above is the precise moment Irma touched Greenville, South Carolina, just prior to my supposed flight back to the Bay Area two days later.

That flight was canceled three times, finally being rescheduled to the next day.

Yeah, it was time to get the heck out of Dodge …

-the Centaur

The Inevitability of Endings

All good things come to an end. I’ve known that since I was a child, when I asked my art teacher whether she had kept any of her childhood drawings, and she, with aplomb, replied no, they all burned in a house fire. But I’ve become more aware of that recently, as, one by one, places that I enjoy have come to an end. I’ve written about this before, but now it’s struck the place where I’ve written much of this: Caffe Romanza is closing.

As I’ve said before, it’s all too easy to kill the golden goose: a business decision which appears to save money may actually undermine the way you make money. Perhaps Books Inc is struggling, but I and many others like me spend a lot late at night, and when they cut their closing hours from 11pm to 10pm it took away one of the reasons I had for going there. Moving from their glorious two-story corner location to a regular storefront will remove more reasons for more people; and eliminating the cafe will remove more reasons still, leaving it just another bookstore instead of a landmark destination.

I don’t have access to their books and I can’t know all their reasons; maybe they were forced into this move. But I’ve talked to similar business owners about similar moves, and they never say, “we can’t afford the late night staff” but instead say “we aren’t making money on the late night traffic,” which shows that they don’t get the connection that the traffic they get at earlier hours is dependent on the later hours, and those of us that are night owls will be compelled to go everywhere. It’s not the four buck cup of coffee we’re paying for: it’s the pleasant environment to drink it in the company of friends.

Still, I wish Books Inc the best of luck in their new location, and I’ll be sure to drop by. And I hope Jay at Caffe Romanza finds a new option. But I will miss that place where I wrote the bulk of my many novels … but I will soon move on and find a new favorite, as the cycle continues.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Books Inc, an insanely large gift certificate for Caffe Romanza given to me by my colleagues on my tenth work anniversary, and Caffe Romanza, end of shift.

Facebook is not a Waste of Time

Facebook is not a waste of time: it saved my cat.

Not long after my good friend Jim Davies shared a story about his beloved pug’s sudden illness, I came home to find our beautiful cat “Loki the Loquacious” turned lethargic, not interested in food, and yowling at touches to his abdomen. This struck me as seriously unusual, and I was motivated by Jim’s experience to look up Loki’s symptoms.

The recommendation: take him to the vet right away. So we did.

It turned out we were right not to wait: this was a life-threatening urinary blockage which could have killed him through cardiac arrest. According to the emergency room vet, this is a particular issue for male cats near the end of winter, when for some reason they drink less. This leads to increasingly concentrated urine, crystallization of debris in the bladder, and, thanks to the (ahem) tapered nature of the male cat anatomy, can lead to blockages that can kill a cat in under 72 hours.

Fortunately we caught it in time, and they were able to catheterize him, put him on an IV and antibiotics. Loki started out as a feral near-bully cat, but after years of love the vets pronounced him a sweetie.

They thought he would be home after a couple of days, though it was closer to five. But he’s home safe now, and that happened because me and my friends were on Facebook, sharing our stories.

Jim, if you’re reading this, as I said on Facebook: I’m sorry for your loss. But thank you for sharing it. You helped me save my cat’s life.

-the Centaur

The Eagle Has Landed

lunar-module.jpg

Welp, that was anticlimactic! Thanks, God, for a smooth update to WordPress 4.7.3! (And thanks to the WordPress team for maintaining backwards compatibility). And hey, look – the Library has close to 1,000 posts!

Screenshot 2017-03-21 12.35.50.png

Expect major site updates in the months to come, as WordPress’s Themes and Pages now enable me to do things I could only formerly do with static pages and hand-coded pages, and it will all be backed up easier thanks to WordPress’s Jetpack plugin.

The things you learn helping other people with their web sites ….

-the Centaur

We are go for launch …

Apollo_17_Night_Launch_-_GPN-2000-001150.jpg

Welp, it’s time: I’ve backed up the Library of Dresan three ways to Sunday, said a prayer … and now am planning to upgrade WordPress from 3.0.1-alpha-15359 to 4.7.3. I know that’s 1.7.2 full version numbers, but it’s been too long, and there are too many new features I need, so … time to press the button.

God, please help me! Everyone else, your prayers, please.

-the Centaur