State estimation, why I travel, testing my French skills in the hospital, and Carnival with Italian friends

Friday morning I was actively looking for productive ways to procrastinate as I neither felt like working in the clean room nor staring at my computer screen. The EPFL calendar listed a seminar on the navigation of completely autonomous robots, which seemed like an interesting way to spend the morning, so off I went. Broadly, the talk presented how autonomous robots perform path planning to navigate through air, land and underwater. During the talk, state estimation came up. As the talk went on, my mind dawdled on state estimation. It struck me as a great analogy for why I travel. Bear with me as I try to tease this out.

One of the challenges for autonomous aerial robots flying indoors is path planning: without access to GPS data, the robot needs an alternative method to plan its path to avoid obstacles. Enter state estimation, a method to deal with uncertainty in a system. You start with a set of initial conditions–a starting belief to the system.  As time progresses, you make observations or perform actions on the state machine. Then you make a new estimation on the state of the system based on those observations. It’s a way to infer the internal state of some system based on external observations.

Travel puts us in unfamiliar environments and forces us to leave behind our assumptions and be open to molding our pre-existing knowledge. When I stay in one place, I get comfortable. I have ideas on how my world functions and walls start to go up. I know how I should behave, how you should behave, and I assume how things should be done. Full stop. If I make an observation that doesn’t fit my pre-existing beliefs (my initial conditions), rather than changing my estimation of the system, I simply discard the observation. It’s easier to ignore an observation than to change my beliefs about the system. When I travel, I’m forced to axe my assumptions and my confidence. How do you buy fruit at the grocery store? How do you open the bus doors? How many cheek kisses am I supposed to give? How do you tell where the 2nd class cars will be when the train arrives at the platform? Everything is new, foreign, and potentially confusing. I’m forced to assume nothing and morph into a pliant learning machine. There is no other way. And the people you meet! It’s easy, when you stay in one place, to assume there’s them, and then there’s me. This attitude is the root of much hatred and hurt in our world. We justify hatred out of fear from people that look, talk, behave, and live in different ways. But travel reduces me, in some ways, back to a child-like state of assuming nothing and seeing everything. In this state, it’s easy to see that, guess what, we’re all human. (Deep, I know…) Travel strips me of my arrogance that prevents me from changing my beliefs about the world. It helps me become more like an objective state estimation algorithm. Start with initial conditions. Observe. Update beliefs on system. Repeat. Open-minded people easily achieve this, but travel is a gentle (sometimes forceful) reminder for me to complete that last step of updating my beliefs.

On another note, I took testing my French skills to the next level by navigating a conversation with a nurse in the hospital. Here’s the backstory: my friend Kate had twins 5 months ago. One of the twins had surgery on Monday, but was still in the hospital on Friday. Neither Kate nor her husband could be at the hospital for a three hour period on Friday evening, so I went to fill in and look after the twins. While the nurse who mainly took care of the twins spoke English, the other nurses who passed by did not speak English. At one point, a nurse needed to administer an antibiotic, and I successfully spoke with nurse about what she was administering, when the baby last ate, and why I was filling in for the parents.

Side note: one of the twins really likes to be held, and cradling a baby for 3 hours is a serious arm workout. Who needs arm day at the gym when you can hold a baby?

Side note 2: I have newfound respect for all parents. They deal with baby spit, loud crying, diapers, and everything else with unconditional love and patience! Just a few hours left me wiped out. When I got home, I ate 4 peanut butter cookies and collapsed on my bed.

Side note 3: Speaking of love, I hope everyone had a wonderful Valentine’s Day. I’m thankful for all the love and well wishes I received from both the States and here. Thank you Hallmark for  proliferating this celebration of love (even if it’s in the spirit of profits), because at the end of the day, it provides a platform for/reminds us to say “I love you,” something we should all probably say more often than we actually do.

One of my Italian friends, Alba, invited me to a Carnival brunch chez elle, which started at 1:30 today. We started with marinated aubergines and zucchini (and of course soaked up all the good olive oil with bread), prosciutto, salami, and parmesan. Alba made a delicious Carnival lasagna, which was filled with fried meatballs, sausage, and ricotta. After a short break, we had homemade tiramisu for dessert. Martha, another Italian girl said lightly, “food like this makes me wonder why I ever left Italy.” I wonder too. We finished brunch around 4 with a Kimbo café and limoncello from Francesco’s hometown near Naples. I do love the European spirit (even more pronounced in the Italian culture) of taking it easy on Sundays and enjoying the company of friends and good food. Well, that’s all for now. Sorry, no pictures from the weekend. Hope everyone has a lovely week! (GTHC!)


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