I met Sam in the 1990's at NIPS. I was relatively new to the community, and a little overwhelmed by its size and scope. The gregarious and well-connected Sam took me under his wing and made a point to invite me to lunch with a group. Although he was younger than me, I often thought of Sam as a mentor---so many of us wanted to be more like him: he was brilliant, creative, warm, funny and the most enthusiastic collector of algorithmic "gems"; he was also a generous community builder.
In 2000 Sam worked for a summer with us at WhizBang Labs in Pittsburgh. In the midst of the constant push and pressures of a start-up company, Sam was a breath of fresh air. Bubbling with ideas, he engaged with everyone from fellow researchers (like Fernando Pereira, Tom Mitchell, William Cohen, Drew Bagnell and Jonathan Baxter) to software engineers and sysadmins.
After I moved to UMass Sam visited several times. Three memories stand out.
Sam had just finished giving a delightful hour-long talk on Neighborhood Component Analysis to an audience of about 70 people. Many researchers might have been a bit tuckered out after making such a presentation, but Sam was still going strong, answering questions from a group of graduate students that had gathered around him afterward. When we realized that there was an hour-long hole in his visit schedule, he suggested that the ten of us stay in the room and continue talking together. We wandered over to a whiteboard, and the discussion ranged more broadly, eventually arriving at the relation between Bethe free energies and belief propagation. Sam proceeded to give an impromptu lecture on the subject---his gesticulating hands drawing pictures in the air, equations flowing out of his blue pen---all so clear, so beautifully motivated, unrolling as naturally as a fairy-tale. (One of the other blog writers had the perfect turn of phrase: "you couldn't help but understand" when Sam was explaining something to you.) Sam also pulled everyone into the conversation. In true Socratic fashion, each stage of the mini-lecture was driven by questions which Sam would ask the students (directed to the student by name, because Sam had taken the time to introduce himself to each student and learn their names). Somehow Sam's boyish enthusiasm prevented even the most junior students from feeling too self-conscious. At the end of the extra hour the students were filled with the sense of "belonging" that came with this new knowledge, and with Sam's infectious joy in it.
That weekend Sam stayed at my house. Unnecessarily, but totally characteristically for him, he brought gifts---a book for each family member: myself, my wife and two children. I can still see Sam sitting on the living room floor cross-legged, the small body of my four-year-old nestled in his lap, while Sam read aloud.
We had made plans to go sailing together on Saturday, but there was no wind. We decided just to spend a simple afternoon at home. I remember walking out on to the porch seeing Sam sitting there, feet up on the railing, eyes closed, face toward the sun. A quiet moment. Relaxed.
In 2007 I was asked to be program co-chair of ICML. I was going to beg off until I understood that Sam would be my co-chair partner. There is no one with whom I'd rather take on such a job. Sam and I became like climbing expedition partners---taking turns hauling the supplies, calling out advice about where to drive in the next piton, encouraging each other. He brought his creativity and boundless energy to this service task. I count literally over 1000 email messages from Sam during our 8 months of ICML work. Sam wasn't able to make it to Helsinki---his twins were born soon after ICML---but Sam's imprint is all over ICML 2008, and he initiated multiple innovations in the conference that are on track to persist for many years to come.
Sam, we miss you terribly. Know that you are loved dearly.
Meredith, I'm sorry we haven't met yet; I wish you peace, strength and courage. Reach out to Sam's friends, and we will be there for you.
For me the tragedy of Sam's death really brings to mind the value and importance of the personal connections we have in our research community---the enduring friendships, the caring, the human dimension beyond our research---and how much these friendships mean to me and all of us, even though we are scattered across the globe. Our grief over Sam's loss brings us together, and will deepen and strengthen our relationships. So, although we desperately wish Sam were here with us instead..., from the beyond, Sam is still building community.
Sam Roweis died unexpectedly on January 12, 2010.
He was a truly wonderful person; a beloved son, husband and father; and a treasured friend and colleague.
This is a place for all of us who were lucky enough to know Sam to share our memories and to help celebrate his life.
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