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I found two problems which together made this particular problem go away:

  1. I had not specified either ROS_HOSTNAME or ROS_IP and as a result apparently ROS takes the hostname (from hostnames) and treats it as a local domain name. This is not reliable in my case (and I understand its not reliable in general.) So I put in specific ip addresses as ROS_IP= on both the robot (running roscore) and the remote computer.
  2. I found that the URDF had the orientation of the LIDAR off by 90 degrees. The urdf had it mounted sideways but actually it is mounted straight (i.e. pointing forward.

FIxing these two things made the jumpy AMCL go away. Now I can do SLAM and AMCL and it works. Thanks!