He Say You Plane Runnah

So my latest adventure was a true comedy of errors – but turned into an unexpected visit to Atlanta with an old friend. As the years pass and I get busier I have less and less time to take anything short of a redeye back to the East Coast, yet my tolerance for them has dropped. So, on the principle that a luxury once enjoyed is a necessity, I’ve started flying First Class.

Not that I really want to – I mean, I enjoy it, but it’s expensive. First Class on some recent flights overseas, which I did NOT get, was in the range of ten thousand dollars. But if I can find a reasonable ticket back to my hometown, I’ll take it. (Rarely, I’ve even found cheaper First Class than normal flights).

One of the perks, apparently, of First Class is that they will call you if your flight connection is delayed. Because of fog, rain and mechanical issues, my plane to Atlanta was delayed, so Delta called me up and alerted me that if I headed to the airport RIGHT NOW, they’d get me on an earlier flight so I could make my connection. Mom and I were already on the way to the airport, so we asked for the check and motored.

I waved to one of my high school buddies in the airport bar – we’d originally been on the same flight – and made my new connection with moments to spare. We pulled back from the gate aaaaand … sat there. And sat there. And sat there, as the minutes ticked down. Finally, the pilot told us that the plane was off balance because it was underweight, the computer was confused, and they were having to reset everything manually. Finally, at the time the plane was originally supposed to have departed, we taxied out.

But then stopped on the runway. I and my buddy texted from two different planes that each was in trouble – ours had no gate to land, his, my original plane, had mechanical trouble and had rolled back to the gate, no mechanic in sight. I said, “screw it”, and in moments had reservations for the spectacular Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel for only $50 bucks using Expedia points. I almost made reservations for my favorite restaurant, then rethought and texted my buddy: “Hey, you’ve missed your connection too, right?”

Yep. He sure had.

When he landed, I already a car, had upgraded the room for free to get an extra bed, and had a list of places to eat that were still open. We hit Manuel’s Tavern, one of our old favorites from back in the day, and then crashlanded in the hotel bar for an hour before calling it a night.

The view from Gordon Biersch in the Atlanta Airport.

The next day, we were out and rolling at the ungodly hour of 6:50am – what is that, I mean, is that even a thing? – and having breakfast at Gordon Biersch. Now it was his turn to wave to make his LA connection, and an hour later I followed on my own flight, with Danny Devito sitting in seat 1B only a few rows away from me during my LA connection. By 4pm, I was hugging my wife and heading back home to hug some cats.

I guess the point, and I do have one, is that I could have had a miserable time with a delayed flight. Instead I got to have a great mini-trip to Atlanta, caught up with an old friend, and had a great story to tell.

I guess attitude is everything.

-the Centaur

Happy New Year!

Blueberry pineapple margarita and iced tea at Chili's.

Happy New Year, y’all! And here’s a productivity tip for all my fellow adventurers: a holiday or vacation is a great time to catch up on that illness you’ve been putting off.

Seriously, I’ve gotten sick something like three or four times in the last month: first a cold which canceled my trip to the WAFR conference in New Mexico, where I was a fricking invited speaker and couldn’t go. That turned into a lingering sinus infection which just about went away by the time I returned to my home town of Greenville – but which then reared its ugly head again. Since my mother, my buddy Derek, and at least one other person fell ill to the same bug within a day or so (stuffiness, a 1-2 day period of severe lethargy, followed by lingering sniffles) I’m guessing this was an entirely new bug that I picked up at the airport. Again this disappeared, but after my return flight back, an adventure in and of itself because of weather delays, I got what appears to be a different bug, this one a slight sniffle plus lingering gastrointestinal distress. Fun! All clearing up in time for work.

So, what can I say? Computing continues its usability slide – I had to switch from Feedly to Innoreader, the Microsoft Word broke all my keystrokes, and the new WordPress editor sucks, making all common operations that much more difficult in favor of something “new” and “cool” that just adds a bunch of junk to what was a clean, simple and easy to use interface. WHAT? Oh, I was going to say something about taking care of yourself in winter colds, but WordPress’s new editor decided to turn a carriage return into some strange modal event that absorbed all my keystrokes and threatened to post the page before I was ready. Where was I?

Oh! So! What can I say? To prevent propagation of infecftion, elbow bump or fist bump rather than shaking hands, don’t touch the “T” – your eyes nose or mouth – and if you have to cough or sneeze, do so into your shirt, not into your hand or even a handkerchief (those spread infection to your hands). If you get infected, get plenty of rest, plenty of fluids, look up the appropriate treatment for your symptoms, and take your placebo of choice, because while placebos don’t work, the placebo effect definitely does. No, it doesn’t have to make sense; it’s just the evidence. Suck it up, Chester.

So! All that stuff I wanted to blog over the holidays. <looks at list> Sigh.

Guess it will have to wait. Back to work!

Back to Aqui and my usual work pile.

-the Centaur

Surfacing

An interpretation of the rocket equation.

Wow. It’s been a long time. Or perhaps not as long as I thought, but I’ve definitely not been able to post as much as I wanted over the last six months or so. But it’s been for good reasons: I’ve been working on a lot of writing projects. The Dakota Frost / Cinnamon Frost “Hexology”, which was a six book series; the moment I finished those rough drafts, it seemed, I rolled into National Novel Writing Month and worked on JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE. Meanwhile, at work, I’ve been snowed under following up on our PRM-RL paper.

Thor's Hammer space station.

But I’ve been having fun! The MACHINERY OF THE APOCALYPSE is (at least possibly) spaaaace steampunk, which has led me to learn all sorts of things about space travel and rockets and angular momentum which I somehow didn’t learn when I was writing pure hard science fiction. I’ve learned so much about creating artificial languages as part of the HEXOLOGY.

The Modanaqa Abugida.

So, hopefully I will have some time to start sharing this information again, assuming that no disasters befall me in the middle of the night.

Gabby in the emergency room.

Oh dag nabbit! (He’s going to be fine).

-the Centaur

Sometimes it only seems like a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-the Centaur

Back to Dragon Con!

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

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

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

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

-The Centaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

-the<tab-complete> Centaur

 

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