You know the way they say that postdocs are the lifeblood of a research group: they have the skills, but they also have the time that professors don't have, and you'll learn so much from them. That was the case when I met Sam, he a prized postdoc at the start of Gatsby and me and Sham the first students there, eager to learn. I'll never forget the way at tea-talks Sam used to sit close in and sometimes run a coin over his knuckles, back and forth, back and forth. He did it to catch your attention as you spoke, and to prove that he could think hard about your work and play at the same time. I remember clearly the first thing he taught me --- relating to identical eigenvalues in inner and outer products of a data matrix --- the observation was simple but the application extremely useful, and the event stood as a template for what I and many others would receive over and over again in the coming years.
I happened to follow Sam to Toronto and ended up working in the office right next door to him every day. He was the happiest I've ever known him. Like an uncle he helped Cassie and me move into our little apartment, warmed to Cassie immediately (or maybe that was the other way around), and always checked that I was busy with work, bouncing ideas off my whiteboard. We would mischievously conspire about how to encourage Radford to submit his Embedded HMM work to NIPS, and get the inside scoop (appropriately anonymized) on the latest reviewing scandal in one of the many committees he sat on. One day he overheard Cassie and me talking about somehow taking a trip to Niagara and just walked in and said "You know what, Matt: you kids need to take my car for the weekend. I'll be back Tuesday", and with his car key dumped on my desk, that was that. Later that year Sam and Andy were so cool when they flew in at the last minute for our wedding hosted at my in-laws' in the middle of nowhere in beautiful rural Illinois. The day after, for brunch in the house, Sam was there working the crowd recounting how he'd just gone upstairs to the bathroom only to find a disheveled party-goer waking up still in his tux: he acted out what the guy said to him in typical Sam style: "So I was still wearing my suit... and I found a piece of wedding cake in the pocket... AND it was now all warm... AND so I ate it... AND it still tasted GOOD!" Imagine Sam pausing each time, finger in the air, delivering those punchlines! We all loved that.
Ever since the beginning of Gatsby, more than a decade ago, both consciously and subconsciously I have attempted to emulate his traits: notably his style of teaching, which I took to Buffalo and the students soaked up. Students voted mine the best course and when asked they simply said "the course left me drained, I had no time to spend on other work, I would recommend it in a heartbeat". Every time any student thanked me for my time and commitment, I would mention 3 people: Sam, Geoff, and Zoubin. When Sam came to Buffalo to visit, the students were enraptured and understood why I was like I was, and it made me realize how lucky I had been to have him as an influence throughout my grad career, and how lucky I still was that he would drop by to what seemed to me like a remote outpost for machine learning. But like many of us, I will never come close to matching the poised, clear, engaging, funny, and personable Sam.
You know what, Sam: I feel like I still have your keys, and I'm still driving your car around, a lot. And I just want to say thank you.
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.
If you would like to add an article to this blog please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you may leave a comment on any article. (Comments are moderated: please bear in mind that this is a place to remember Sam and to help celebrate his life.)
There is also an album of photographs for which contributions are welcome. Instructions on how to contribute appear next to album.