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Still at the Conference on Robot Learning. LOTS of robot dogs were about, lots of diffusion model and transformer work, and lots of language model planning. More later, gotta crash.

-the Centaur

Blog This

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In ATL for the Conference on Robot Learning, very tired after a long day, please enjoy this picture of a Page One from Cafe Intermezzo. Actually, today was a really good example of "being where you need to be" ... I ran into a fair number of colleagues from Google and beyond just by being out on the town at the right time and the right place, and was also able to help out a fellow who seriously needed some food. And when the evening was ending ... three more Google colleagues appeared on the street as I sat down for coffee.

I don't actually believe we live in a simulation, or in the Secret, or whatever ... but if you're doing the right thing, I find that Providence tends to open the doors for you right when you need it.

-the Centaur

P.S. Being in the right place DOESN'T mean you get all your nano wordcount done though. I am making progress on "Blessing of the Prism", my Neurodiversiverse story, but on Dakota Frost #7 I found myself spending most of my writing time sorting chapters in the big manuscript into sections, as I realized that one of the ungainly sections I didn't like was actually a coherent start for Dakota Frost #8.

P.P.S. On my blogroll, I saw someone say, "no writing is wasted", and in a sense the chapters I just saved are not wasted. In another, and I say this as a bloviating maximalist, a big part of writing is selection, and sometimes having too many versions of a thing can make it hard to pick the right one and move on.

Okay, really going to crash this time, peace out.

Just because you love it doesn’t mean it works

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So the turkeys are out again! Love to see these fellas in the yard. But they're not the only big ungainly birds out there. I've been reading a lot of writing books recently, and some of them have really great advice. True, in each good book there is, usually, at least one stinker.

But most of the good ones build on the two related ideas that "whatever works, works," so you can adapt their advice to your own needs - HOWEVER, "some things usually work better than others," so if you are having trouble, here are some tools you can try.

One thing I draw from this is a refutation of the idea that if an artist achieves their artistic vision then there's nothing wrong with that piece of art. Phooey. It may be great for them that they achieved their vision - heaven knows, I so rarely do that - but what they envision itself may be flawed.

Dwight Swain, who wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer, talks about this in audio courses built on his book. As a novelist, he claims you often don't know how good an idea is until you get a chapter or three into the story, and that if you find your idea doesn't work (or that you don't care about your protagonist), quit.

There's no shame in this. But if you've got the time, talent or treasure, you can sometimes push a bad idea to its logical conclusion without ever questioning the foundation. For example, hiring Samuel Jackson, but directing him to act woodenly as if he's in an old Republic serial (I'm looking at you, George Lucas).

What you focus on as your artistic vision is itself a matter of choice, and achieving your artistic vision does not mean that you'll end up with something that is aesthetically effective. Hey, as always, you're free to do you, but that doesn't mean that the rest of us are going to get what you've got.

-the Centaur

Too much to keep up with

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When I was a kid, I read an article by Isaac Asimov complaining that the pace of scientific publication had become so great that he couldn't possibly keep up. When I was an adult, I realized that the end of the article - in which he claimed that if you heard panting behind his office door it was because he was out of breath from trying to read the scientific literature - was a veiled reference to masturbation. Yep, Isaac is the Grand Dirty Old Man of science fiction, and, man, we love you, but, damn, sometimes, you needed a filter.

Well, the future is now, and the story is repeating itself - sans Isaac's ending; my regular fiction is a touch blue so there's no need for my blog to get prurient. I'm a robotics researcher turned consultant, focusing on, among a kazillion other things, language model planning - robots using tools like ChatGPT to write their own programs. As part of this, I'm doing research - market research on AI and robotics, general research on the politics of AI, and technical research on language models in robotics.

A good buddy from grad school is now a professor, and he and I have restarted a project from the 90's on using stories to solve problems (the Captain's Advisory Tool, using Star Trek synopses as a case-base, no joke). And we were discussing this problem: he's complaining that the pace of research has picked up to the point where he can no longer keep up with the literature. So it isn't just me.

But the best story yet on how fast things are changing? Earlier this month, I was going through some articles on large language models my research - and a new announcement came out while I was still reading the articles I had just collected that morning.

Singularity, here we come.

-the Centaur

Two at once

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So! National Novel Writing Month is here again, but I haven't finished my story for the Neurodiversiverse. So I'm working on two stories at once. Hopefully this will not become confusing.

But, if you see something from me in which space centaurs fight werewolves, or Dakota Frost goes to space, you know why - hang on, wait a minute, I already had those storylines going.

Hmm ... this might be trickier to debug than I thought...

-the Centaur

Nano is coming …

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Zonked because I was up early trying to get something resolved with my passport. Crashing early, still not certain what project I'm going to pick for Nanowrimo tomorrow.

Until then, enjoy your magic salad!

-the Centaur

And it’s gone …

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Had a great day with a buddy from grad school who drove up so we could bike the Swamp Rabbit Trail. During that, I had a great idea for a blogpost, which has completely evaporated on the bike back.

So, please enjoy this picture of a pizza instead!

Bon appetit.

-the Centaur

With Unexpected Impact

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Continuing on the forest theme, sometimes you come across a tree that you think is just dead. This is a good time of year for it: the foliage is falling, so you can more clearly see all the trees, but some of them still have leaves, making the ones which are completely barren stand out. Often the bark is black and cracking, or all the small branches have fallen off, leaving just a stick. I've twisted a fair few of these out of the ground with one hand and added them to the growing border that is creating our path.

But others are bigger - the kind that tree experts call "widowmakers". You can walk up to one, and just push on it, and it may start to fall - but you get more than you bargained for. The tree's momentum, once started, cannot be stopped, and its weight - even if rotten - is enough to cause a cascading chain reaction, breaking off healthy limbs and knocking over other trees on its way down. These slender systems, dead but balanced in a semblance of life, crash with unexpected impact, ringing out through the forest as they land.

It may be fun to knock over a system you don't like, but the crash can kill you, and it can do a lot of damage to other people as it falls to rest.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Well, I don't have pictures of the trees that fell over, but I do have vines that I've pulled down, which looked twenty feet long but proved to be fifty feet of falling debris that also could kill you.

Sometimes you gotta draw a line

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Sometimes when working on a vast project it transcends "you can't do it all at once" and moves into the territory "it's hard to know where to get started". One such project is trying to bring the woods in our house under control. Apparently the previous owner's yard folks had been trimming the landscaping around the house and throwing the cuttings into the forest, so an entertaining variety of invasive ivy, grapes, something like holly, and other vine-like things were progressively destroying the trees of the forest.

It's been a process. The yard looked like wilderness once you got past the landscaping and was nearly impassable. But, after we were forced to take out the first of our dying trees (NO, well, full disclosure, a delivery truck took out the FIRST of our trees when it ran into it) when it got consumed by ivy one year and threatened to fall on the driveway, we decided to start the multi-year project of rehabilitating the yard.

We took out that tree, then took out another half-dozen. We hired goats that year to eat the vines down to the ground, then followed up with chainsaws and clippers to sever the roots of the vines climbing the trees. The goats decided they were done with it and didn't eat any new growth that came back up, so the next year, we hired a guy to bring in a "mulcher" (really, a bobcat with a giant grinder on the front of it) to clear out runways through the landscape, leaving islands of greenery for the deer and other animals.

Then, we started on the paths.

Our idea - and I'm not saying it's a good or feasible one - is to have paths running through this forest. This would take way, way more money than we want to spend on it - but we're patient, and have time. So, slowly, step by step, we've been taking fallen tree limbs and creating borders for the paths.

Drawing that line is an act of magic - even if it's just with an old rotten piece of wood thrown onto some leaves. As soon as the line is drawn, you know what's inside it, and what's outside it. You know which plants you can leave alone, and which weeds need to be pulled up. And once you've done that, you have an even larger area of order, which brings increased clarity, which brings more opportunities for order.

I don't know if we will ever complete our plan to rehabilitate the forest.

But at least now, there are paths we can walk.

-the Centaur

When it happens, you gotta get on with getting it gone

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Often as we go through our lives we encounter situations where we feel, "I can't take this." There's a lot of subtle reasoning behind this: our emotions are derived from whether we think we can cope with losses (secondary appraisal), how well we think we're doing in relation to others (relative deprivation) and our disproportionate fear of short-term losses compared to short- or long-term gains (myopic loss aversion).

These are reasonable fears. A sufficiently large short-term loss can kill you. SO it's rational to worry more about those. And we can't see ourselves from the outside; looking at how others are doing around us as a guideline is also reasonable. And we certainly don't want to tackle situations we can't cope with.

But we're often wrong about all of that. We often catastrophize potential failures as being far worse than they are, our comparisons with others can become unhelpful if not pathological - and since we unrealistically distort threats, we often far underestimate our ability to cope with problems.

When real shit happens, it sometimes puts things into perspective. For me, I used to complain that grad school was hard, and it was, but it wasn't as hard as Grandmother breaking her hip after midnight on Christmas Eve. I used to complain that work was hard, and it was, but not as hard as getting the call that you've lost your mother. And preparing for a complex business trip can be hard, and maybe it is, but it is not as hard as discovering that you misread the expiration date on your passport just before flying.

When any of those things happen, you have to stop fretting about it and just get on with doing it. Now, admittedly, some people can break down when that happens, but for me personally, I find that my emotional fretting turns off, and my mind just focuses on what I need to do to get it done.

Case in point: above is a tree.

My wife and I used to walk under the limbs of that tree almost every night that we took a walk. You'll note you can't do that anymore, because the tree started leaning. As best as our tree doctors can figure, many of the trees that the previous owners planted on the property were planted with the transport basket still on the tree; while the tree would remain healthy for a while, eventually the roots get too big to go through the mesh of the basket, the roots turn inward, the tree becomes root-bound, and the whole basket turns into a big ball bearing as the tree gets bigger and bigger ... and unhealthier and unhealthier, preparing to fall.

This one began leaning a month or two back, but we didn't notice it until one day it just was too low to walk under. Shortly thereafter we saw that the tree was beginning to tear up the ground as it twisted in its great ball bearing. We've done this dance before; this isn't the first tree we've lost to this process, or the second.

Now, after I left Google, we deliberately dialed back our work on fixing up the yard - which, due to the year and a half the house sat between owners, needs a lot of work. It's been a juggling act as I spun up my consulting business, and fretting was involved as we traded a goal to fix this broken thing against an aspiration to improve that thing that versus a desire to maintain this other thing. We're blessed to have this nice yard, but at some points, it can feel like we might be more blessed with a small apartment.

But once we started whacking ourselves in the head with that tree limb we used to walk under, we had to focus, make a decision, and get it done. We had to get on with getting it gone, as I said in the title.

It's sad to lose the tree. But, if there's any silver lining in that, it feels good to know you can solve a problem when you need to. And I find focusing on that is really helpful, because the next time something happens, you can remember times you solved those problems, and use that emotional resource to solve the next one.

-the Centaur