Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Posted by Danny Tarlow
I'm in shock reading the sad and confusing news about former Toronto (and more recently, NYU) professor, Sam Roweis.

The Toronto Machine Learning group has been missing Sam's presence at our meetings and around the lab for a while now; he was on sabbatical at Google and more recently took a professorship at NYU. I have many memories from my first couple years in Toronto, though. You could always count on Sam to spark an interesting conversation after a seminar or tea talk by asking the penetrating question that cut straight to the heart of the issue. I learned a lot about how to critically think about new ideas by watching Sam in action.

As a teacher, Sam was phenomenal. He had a unique ability to present complex material in a well-motivated, clear way. My favorite part of his lectures were his "street fighting tips" where he'd teach us the tips and tricks that it takes to translate the "book form" of an idea into a program or algorithm that actually works. This ability to connect the elegant theoretical understanding to the practical understanding is something I will always admire.

Finally, Sam was just a really good guy. At one of the earlier conferences that I went to, I knew very few people. Sam recognized this and made the effort on several occasions to come talk to me, explaining parts of talks that I didn't understand, giving his thoughts on some poster, and even going so far as to find other professors to introduce me to. There were so many people there more deserving of his attention, but you'd never have known it from my perspective.

The world is unquestionably worse off without such a brilliant researcher, teacher, and all-round great guy. I think I speak for an enormous number of people when I say we'll miss him greatly.

Update: Posts by people who knew him better than I did: Fernando Pereira, John Langford, Maneesh Sahani, Jennifer Linden, and many others.

1 comment:

David Warde-Farley said...

Agreed. He was one of the most gifted educators I've ever had the the pleasure of knowing, and a truly remarkable person all around. From what I understand, circumstances had placed Sam and his wife in considerable emotional and financial turmoil. My heart breaks to think that he felt this was the only way out.