• So There I Was, Buying My Little Pony Merchandise in Italy

    For Thanksgiving, my family went on a trip to Rome. It was pretty cool! There’s something special about visiting a city that is literally thousands of years old. It is one thing to read about the Renaissance, and it is another thing to realize that the sculpture in the town plaza predates the Declaration of Independence by over 300 years, and it’s right there.

    The one downside is that although my parents liked the scenery, they weren’t the biggest fans of Italian food. They didn’t dislike it, but, well, let me put it this way: the only restaurant we visited multiple times was a Chinese restaurant.

    To be fair, the Chinese restaurant catered to Chinese exchange students, meaning their Chinese food was authentic and actually pretty good. Still, I wasn’t expecting to eat Chinese food in Rome, and I especially wasn’t expecting eating Chinese food multiple times in Rome.

    But I digress! During the trip, we visited a supermarket to buy some fruit. While there, a family member pointed out these boxes.

    My Little Pony boxes

    I was against buying it. They argued the following.

    • According to the packaging, there was “a surprise inside”.
    • It only cost 2 Euros.
    • Buying MLP merchandise in Italy is intrinsically funny.

    I bought two boxes.

    * * *

    Let’s take a closer look. The front and back have the same picture, but the two sides are different.

    Front of box

    Side 1 of box

    Side 2 of box

    The first thing I noticed was that the character art looked…off, somehow. In what world does Fluttershy wink like that? In what world does Twilight smirk like that. Expression-wise I’m pretty sure neither has made that face in the show, and it feels out-of-character for both of them. Fluttershy seems too reserved for a playful wink. Twilight seems too nice for a knowing smirk.

    Rainbow also looked off, and after staring at it a while, I figured out why. Normally her mane hangs over her left eye, but here it hangs over her right.

    Rainbow Dash comparison

    Literally unbuyable. I’m only kind-of joking, actually. Look, here’s my view: fans have the right to call out shitty merchandise. Like, if you’re going to monetize your show, you should at least have your merchandise reflect what your show looks like! Don’t even tell me that the target audience of young girls won’t care. I suspect the target audience does care. One, I believe children are more perceptive than people think. Two, when you’re a kid, you don’t have as much going on in your life, which makes it easy to obsess over the details of your Saturday morning cartoons. The moment they changed Ash Ketchum’s voice actor in Pokemon, I was done with that show.

    Take Brave as a case study. The goal of Brave was to create a Disney princess that avoided the gender stereotypes of the old Disney princesses. The movie succeeded. The marketing didn’t.

    Character design comparison

    The marketing made Merida slimmer, made her a bit older, removed her bow, and made her hair less curly. Anecdotally, my Facebook feed had a few comments from parents, saying their daughter didn’t like it because “her hair wasn’t as curly”, and “it’s not the same Merida as the movie.” (You can read comments from Brave’s director here, if you’re interested in further ranting.)

    The details matter. Don’t mess them up.

    * * *

    Opening the box produces this.

    Box contents

    What looked like a chocolate muffin, and a few pony cards. The chocolate muffin…was not that good. Derpy would be ashamed.

    Derpy hooves

    Okay, so it’s not actually a muffin. It’s “panettoncino with chocolate chips”, But my headcanon is that if Derpy can make good muffins, she can make good panettoncino too.

    Let’s take a closer look at these cards.

    Front of cards

    (Card fronts.)

    Back of cards

    (Card backs. It’s identical for all of them.)

    Awwwwww, they’re so cute! I have no issues with the art here. But wait a second, there’s only 5 cards. Isn’t it supposed to be the Mane 6? Where’s Applejack? She’s not on the front. She’s not on the back.

    Speaking of which, is Applejack even on the box?

    Scroll up if you want. She isn’t. Applejack doesn’t appear anywhere on or in this box. Every other pony in the Mane 6 is there. The top bar has plenty of side characters.

    Side characters

    …and no Applejack.

    Sad Applejack

    Strike the “Chinese food in Rome” thing. This right here is a What the hell were you thinking? moment. Applejack certainly isn’t that popular, but come on, she’s part of the main ensemble! There are plenty of Applejack fans!

    There are dozens of us! DOZENS!

    This is funny at a meta-level, because people like to joke Applejack is “the best background pony”, but it’s sad for fans that have to see her getting treated as a second-level citizen. Either this is a mistake of colossal proportions, or Applejack is just that unappealing of a character. I’ll be generous and go with the former.

    I’ve bought other MLP merchandise, but it’s primarily been fan-created merchandise. Fan merchandise tends to match the quality I expect, because it’s made by people who actually care about getting the details right.

    Look, Hasbro, just do it better next time, alright?

  • The Research Tax

    Written quickly. Close to stream-of-consciousness.

    If you haven’t kept up with recent news in the intersection between academia and politics, here is the short version: the currently debated GOP tax bill significantly increases the tax burden on graduate students, and it just passed the House.

    This has been covered by Scott Aaronson, Luca Trevisan, and others. The below is a summary of information from there. Skip to the next section if you’d just like my opinion.

    Currently, university’s handle PhD student tuition like this.

    • The graduate student pays as tuition.
    • The university waives of the tuition.
    • The university then pays a graduate student stipend of .
    • In the current system, stipend is taxed and the waived tuition is not. The student only ever receives - the is essentially invisible.

    Under the new GOP tax bill, the waived tuition will be taxed. This is a double whammy, since not only does it increase the total amount of taxable income, the increase is enough to push several students into the next federal tax bracket. A more detailed breakdown can be found here. The linked analysis shows that if nothing else changes, a typical in-state Berkeley PhD student would pay about $1400 more tax, and a typical MIT PhD student would pay about $9500 more tax. These are rough orders of magnitude for how it affects public universities vs private universities, with more damage to private universities because they have a higher tuition. Importantly, students would not get taxed because of a larger stipend - they would be taxed on money that has never entered their pockets in the first place.

    As for why universities can’t simply declare that grad student tuitions are - there’s some accounting trick that lets the university get more money if they give tuition waivers to grad students. I haven’t looked into the details of this.

    * * *

    I’m currently not in academia, for several reasons, but the big one is that I got a job offer from an industry research lab with interests close to mine. I’m certainly giving up some things, but the trade-offs fall in favor of me staying out of academia.

    If I had gone to academia, I would have been okay financially, thanks to several lucky breaks. I was born in an upper-middle class family, the kind that doesn’t spend a lot of money but has money to burn. I had natural interest in math and computer science, and turns out the world’s willing to pay those people quite a bit if they enter finance or software. I liked algorithms, which happened to be the weird test of software engineering prowess in Silicon Valley - the only reason I got my first internship was because I knew the pseudocode for Dijkstra’s algorithm. And although part of my heart will always belong to the beauty of proofs, I tolerated systems enough to pick up the skills that let me handle industry.

    Overall, I’ve lived a privileged life. That likely wouldn’t change in academia because CS PhDs have it easier than other departments. With careful spending, I think I could intern at a tech company some months of the year, use the money from that to fund research for the rest of the year, and still end net positive.

    The thing is, these policies aren’t crippling to people like me. They’re crippling to the less fortunate.

    I can’t speak for other fields, but academia for CS is increasingly a rich person’s game. Any strong PhD candidate could be at least an average software engineer, and that’s a lot of money to leave off the table. I’ve read an anecdotal story of a promising research, first to go to college in her family, and she laughed at the thought of going for a PhD. Her parents had done so much to support her. It would have been too selfish to turn down a well-paying job that could let her start paying them back.

    Across all fields, the tax bill would essentially do the same: make academia more of a rich person’s game. The reason the news bothers me so much is that if it goes through, there’s going to be so much unfulfilled passion, so many students who can’t let their research interests override financial realities. It’s a duller, less colorful world.

    * * *

    To play devil’s advocate, the analysis above assumes nothing else about the world will change. This is very unrealistic. If the tax bill goes through as is, universities will certainly adjust - ask for more donations, decrease tuition, and make up the accounting shortfall elsewhere with even more creative costcutting. The actual tax increase would likely be lower than the current numbers.

    However, I have a hard time believing that universities will be able to make up all the difference. Universities certainly have bloat, and a reduced budget provides a very strong motivation to identify that bloat - but based on what I’ve heard about university financials, I’m not convinced there’s a lot that can be cut without a fight. There are some damning numbers showing that administrators are taking up an increasingly large share of university budgets, but I’d guess that you can’t just layoff a ton of admins and expect the university to put itself back together in a reasonable timeframe.

    The top-tier universities can weather this better. The lower-tier universities, less so. It’s the same rich person’s game - universities that already have trouble with recruiting grad students will have even more trouble recruiting grad students. The conclusion is similarly disappointing.

    * * *

    Throughout this post, I’ve been assuming academia is intrinsically valuable. That’s certainly up for debate. One argument I’ve seen is that outside of the top-tier universities, academia is a net-negative pursuit, and it would be better for society if lower-tier schools were priced out of relevance. Given the latent misery and stress of academia, and the constant self-doubt researchers have about the relevance of their own work, I think it’s worth considering this argument seriously. However, debating the merits of academia is out of the scope of this post.

    To funnel everything back into RL terms (since I’m “that RL guy”) - I see academia as the ultimate extreme of the exploration-exploitation tradeoff. Industry is content to do what works, industry research labs can be more exploratory, and academia gets to consider crazy ideas that may not be relevant for decades. In my ideal society, there are always people taking crazy ideas seriously. And I mean that in a good way! Some nuts talking about water memory, some other people trying to quantify the odds we’re living in a simulation, a third group advocating that we spend the next 50 years building a model of all of ethics. The strength of academia (and the argument for tenure) is that it lets you do these things if you care about them enough.

    Somewhere out in the world is a cohort of Medieval Studies PhDs, and I feel very safe saying that little of note will come from there in the next 25 years. But that doesn’t mean I want them to disappear. Do you know how insane you have to be to want to do Medieval Studies? Like, holy shit, you really really really really have to like the subject to want to spend your life doing that. How is that not crazy awesome?

    The world should have room for people like that. I’m worried it won’t.

  • My First First-Author Paper

    Images of a simulated robot, real robot, and simulated images made to look realistic

    Today, the paper Using Simulation and Domain Adaptation to Improve Efficiency of Deep Robotic Grasping went public on arXiv. I’ve been working on this project for the past 6 months, and this is the first time I’ve been first author on a research paper, so overall it’s a Pretty Big Deal for me. I share first authorship with Konstantinos Bousmalis and Paul Wohlhart, both of whom were great to work with. The link above will take you to a landing page with the arXiv link and a video that briefly explains our work.

    If it wasn’t clear from the lengthy author list, a lot of people contributed to this project. Thanks to everyone for the mentorship and the engineering support that made this project possible.