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Posts tagged as “Startuppery”

Congratulations Richard Branson (and/or Jeff Bezos)

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branson in spaaace Congratulations, Sir Richard Branson, on your successful space flight! (Yes, yes, I *know* it's technically just upper atmosphere, I *know* there's no path to orbit (yet) but can we give the man some credit for an awesome achievement?) And I look forward to Jeff Bezos making a similar flight later this month. Now, I stand by my earlier statement: the way you guys are doing this, a race, is going to get someone killed, perhaps one of you guys. A rocketship is not a racecar, and moves into realms of physics where we do not have good human intuition. Please, all y'all, take it easy, and get it right. That being said, congratulations on being the first human being to put themselves into space as part of a rocket program that they themselves set in motion. That's an amazing achievement, no-one can ever take that away from you, and maybe that's why you look so damn happy. Enjoy it! -the Centaur P.S. And day 198, though I'll do an analysis of the drawing at a later time.

RIP Jeff Bezos (and/or Richard Branson)

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rip jeff bezos You know, Jeff Bezos isn’t likely to die when he flies July 20th. And Richard Branson isn’t likely to die when he takes off at 9am July 11th (tomorrow morning, as I write this). But the irresponsible race these fools have placed them in will eventually get somebody killed, as surely as Elon Musk’s attempt to build self-driving cars with cameras rather than lidar was doomed to (a) kill someone and (b) fail. It’s just, this time, I want to be caught on record saying I think this is hugely dangerous, rather than grumbling about it to my machine learning brethren. Whether or not a spacecraft is ready to launch is not a matter of will; it’s a matter of natural fact. This is actually the same as many other business ventures: whether we’re deciding to create a multibillion-dollar battery factory or simply open a Starbucks, our determination to make it succeed has far less to do with its success than the realities of the market—and its physical situation. Either the market is there to support it, and the machinery will work, or it won’t. But with normal business ventures, we’ve got a lot of intuition, and a lot of cushion. Even if you aren’t Elon Musk, you kind of instinctively know that you can’t build a battery factory before your engineering team has decided what kind of battery you need to build, and even if your factory goes bust, you can re-sell the land or the building. Even if you aren't Howard Schultz, you instinctively know it's smarter to build a Starbucks on a busy corner rather than the middle of nowhere, and even if your Starbucks goes under, it won't explode and take you out with it. But if your rocket explodes, you can't re-sell the broken parts, and it might very well take you out with it. Our intuitions do not serve us well when building rockets or airships, because they're not simple things operating in human-scaled regions of physics, and we don't have a lot of cushion with rockets or self-driving cars, because they're machinery that can kill you, even if you've convinced yourself otherwise. The reasons behind the likelihood of failure are manyfold here, and worth digging into in greater depth; but briefly, they include:
  • The Paradox of the Director's Foot, where a leader's authority over safety personnel - and their personal willingness to take on risk - ends up short-circuiting safety protocols and causing accidents. This actually happened to me personally when two directors in a row had a robot run over their foot at a demonstration, and my eagle-eyed manager recognized that both of them had stepped into the safety enclosure to question the demonstrating engineer, forcing the safety engineer to take over audience questions - and all three took their eyes off the robot. Shoe leather degradation then ensued, for both directors. (And for me too, as I recall).
  • The Inexpensive Magnesium Coffin, where a leader's aesthetic desire to have a feature - like Steve Job's desire for a magnesium case on the NeXT machines - led them to ignore feedback from engineers that the case would be much more expensive. Steve overrode his engineers ... and made the NeXT more expensive, just like they said it would, because wanting the case didn't make it cheaper. That extra cost led to the product's demise - that's why I call it a coffin. Elon Musk's insistence on using cameras rather than lidar on his self-driving cars is another Magnesium Coffin - an instance of ego and aesthetics overcoming engineering and common sense, which has already led to real deaths. I work in this precise area - teaching robots to navigate with lidar and vision - and vision-only navigation is just not going to work in the near term. (Deploy lidar and vision, and you can drop lidar within the decade with the ground-truth data you gather; try going vision alone, and you're adding another decade).
  • Egotistical Idiot's Relay Race (AKA Lord Thomson's Suicide by Airship). Finally, the biggest reason for failure is the egotistical idiot's relay race. I wanted to come up with some nice, catchy parable name to describe why the Challenger astronauts died, or why the USS Macon crashed, but the best example is a slightly older one, the R101 disaster, which is notable because the man who started the R101 airship program - Lord Thomson - also rushed the program so he could make a PR trip to India, with the consequence that the airship was certified for flight without completing its endurance and speed trials. As a result, on that trip to India - its first long distance flight - the R101 crashed, killing 48 of the 54 passengers - Lord Thomson included. Just to be crystal clear here, it's Richard Branson who moved up his schedule to beat Jeff Bezos' announced flight, so it's Sir Richard Branson who is most likely up for a Lord Thomson's Suicide Award.
I don't know if Richard Branson is going to die on his planned spaceflight tomorrow, and I don't know that Jeff Bezos is going to die on his planned flight on the 20th. I do know that both are in an Egotistical Idiot's Relay Race for even trying, and the fact that they're willing to go up themselves, rather than sending test pilots, safety engineers or paying customers, makes the problem worse, as they're vulnerable to the Paradox of the Director's Foot; and with all due respect to my entire dot-com tech-bro industry, I'd be willing to bet the way they're trying to go to space is an oversized Inexpensive Magnesium Coffin. -the Centaur P.S. On the other hand, when Space X opens for consumer flights, I'll happily step into one, as Musk and his team seem to be doing everything more or less right there, as opposed to Branson and Bezos. P.P.S. Pictured: Allegedly, Jeff Bezos, quick Sharpie sketch with a little Photoshop post-processing.

He thinks he invented Java because he was in the room when someone made coffee

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... came up as my wife and I were discussing the "creative hangers-on form" of Stigler's Law. The original Stigler's Law, discovered by Roger Merton and popularized by Stephen Stigler, is the idea that in science, no discovery is named after its original discoverer. In creative circles, it comes up when someone who had little or nothing to do with a creative process takes credit for it. A few of my wife's friends were like this, dropping by to visit her while she was in the middle of a creative project, describing out loud what she was doing, then claiming, "I told her to do that." In the words of Finn from The Rise of Skywalker: "You did not!" In computing circles, the old joke referred to the Java programming language. I've heard several variants, but the distilled version is "He thinks he invented Java because he was in the room when someone made coffee."  Apparently this is a good description of how Java itself was named, down to at least one person  claiming they came up with the name Java and others disputing that, even suggesting that they opposed it, claiming instead that someone else in the room was responsible - while that person in turn rejected the idea, noting only that there was some coffee in the room from Peet's. Regardless, I dispute Howard Aiken's saying "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Nah. Once you've forced an idea down someone's throat, they won't just swallow it, they'll claim it was in their stomach all along. -the Centaur

Day 054

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What, did you think I was not going to do Drawing Every Day just because I did a Photoshop graphic for the Lent entry? steamgoggle sketch So, today's exercise was something very difficult for me: abandoning a failed rough and starting over. You see, many artists that I know will get sucked into perfecting a drawing that has some core flaw in its bones - this is something I ran into with my Batman cover page. I know one artist who has worked over a handful of difficult paintings for literally 2-3 years ... but who can produce dozens of new paintings for a show on the drop of a hat. But it's hard emotionally to let go the investment in a partially finished piece. This is tied up with the Sunken Cost Fallacy Fallacy, the false idea that if you've decided a venture has failed you should cut your losses despite your prior investment in it. This is based on the very real ideas of sunk costs - costs expended that cannot be recovered - which should not be factored into rational decisions the same way that we should prospective costs - costs that can be avoided by taking action. The "Sunken Cost Fallacy" comes in when people don't cut their losses in a failed venture. The "Fallacy Fallacy" part kicks in because in the real world costs do not become sunk as a result of your decisions. When a self-proclaimed "decider"(1) chooses to proclaim that a project is a failure, the value invested in the project doesn't magically become nonrecoverable based on that decision and the classical Sunken Cost Fallacy does not apply. I have seen a private company literally throw away a two million dollar investment for a dollar because the owner didn't want to deal with it anymore. Fortunately, most artists are better businessmen than that. Deep down, they know any painting could be the ONE that gets them seen; deeper down, each painting is an expression of their creativity. Even if the painting has flaws, one never knows whether the piece will be fixable, even ultimately excel. I have seen paintings go through years of work and many difficulties, only to finally turn up amazing. Drawings, paintings and novels are like investments in that way, always tantalizing us with their future potential. But, deep down, I feel like it's possible to do better than that. That by painting or drawing more, and being more ruthless earlier in the process, that it's possible to recognize wrong turns and truly sunken costs and to start over. Once a huge canvas has covered with paint over many months, or a large manuscript has been filled with words over an equal period of time, it represents an investment in images and ideas that can potentially be salvaged ... but a sketch or outline, now, that you can throw out straightaway. You may not get the thirty minutes doing the sketch back, but at least you'll be starting in a better place. In my case, I was starting here, the cover for Steampunk Gear, Gadgets and Gizmos I had lying about: I started what I intended to be a quick sketch, and got partway into the roughs ... steamgoggle failed rough ... when I decided that the shape of the face was off - and the proportions of the arm were even further off. I started to fix it - you can see a few doubled features like eyes and lips in there - but I decided - ha, decided - no, stop, STOP Anthony, this rough is too far gone. Start over, and look more closely at what you see this time. That led to the drawing at the top of the entry. There were still problems with the finished piece - I am continuing to have trouble with tilting heads the wrong way, and something went wrong with the shape of the arm, leading to a too-narrow, too-long wrist - but the bones of the sketch were so much better than the first attempt that it was easy to finish the drawing. And thus, keep up drawing every day. -the Centaur (1) I'm not bitter.

PRM-RL Won a Best Paper Award at ICRA!

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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