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

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

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