Monday, May 25, 2015

Meeting my wife Luda -- from mundane to esoteric

People often ask: how did you first meet your wife, Luda? And OK, it’s one of my favorite subjects. It has many, many levels – and I think it’s entertaining.

First – the normal instructive level, stories I tell lots of people.

We first met at a conference at NIST in 1996, a conference on machine intelligence organized by Jim Albus and Alex Meystel, whom we both knew reasonably well. Jim and Alex planned to bring together all the important approaches to building and understanding intelligence, to get some kind of dialogue broader and deeper than the narrow conferences led by just one discipline. There were lots of stories then about the powerful secrets of Russian AI , so Alex worked hard to locate the eight best people form Russia to represent that stream of work, and get their travel funded. Then I stretch a bit: “They were brought up on the stage for us all to see.. and who were they? Snow White and the seven dwarfs. You can guess which one was Snow White.” (But not at all that Disney personality!)  

Soon after, one of the seven dwarfs approached Luda, and told her: “I have to warn you about something. That Werbos guy, who works for the US government, has been asking lots and lots of questions about you. I think youmay be under watch form them.” “Well,” she said, “There might be another explanation?” Dwarf: “How could there possibly be another explanation? I could not imagine any other possibility.” She just smiled.

Then came a key big plenary talk by Walter Freeman, a leading neuroscientsist.
“YOU neural network people...” he said, pointing directly at me, “and YOU AI people” he said, pointing directly at Luda, “If you people want to build an intelligent system so much, you should just have a baby. That’s the biological approach.” Some time later, I sent an email to Walter: “OK, Walter, we followed your advice. But now how do we UNDERSTAND this intelligent system..?” “Oh, that’s up to you. But we can collaborate on the general subject..”

Lots more amusing stuff, but one last instructive mundane story

Months later, as I went to the coffee stand in the ECCS division of NSF, one of my colleagues said: “Paul, I think you are taking this woman too seriously. That’s normal for people who just met each other, but you really need to be more realistic. If you start going on the path to making a life together... you are from totally different cultures, with different values, and you need to be realistic about the chances of you working together long-term.” My reply: “Well, I don’t know about that. In our area, more than half the people are Indian or Chinese. Being Russian... that’s like the girl next door.”  His face grew almost furious, and he exploded: “How could you even imagine that THAT was what I meant? No, by strange and alien culture and values, I meant, she is a computer scientist and you are an engineer.” I smiled: “Don’t worry. We are both crossdisciplinary types. That much I know for sure.”

OK, that’s the normal part. But real life is not so simple ... has not been, and will not be.

Early in 1989, I visited a townhouse near Cambridge University, which Andy Barto was renting for awhile while collaborating with folks there; he invited me to stay and talk to them for a few days, following on a workshop we both presented at. At that time, my number one intense intellectual effort was in a different area altogether – trying to understand the foundations of physics enough to get back to the notion of objective reality. I had a few papers out on that topic, and had spent years trying to understand all aspects, but somehow the great complexity just wasn’t coming together in my mind. A major problem was that I had no one to talk to to get really deep in that difficult subject.
“This is harder than what Maxwell or Einstein faced. It is a question of ‘order form chaos...” The only one who really had dramatic success in doing that before was Isaac Newton.” .

No, I did not give up on all the many normal rational approaches to the Big Question I was asking... but why not add one more approach, given how hard this was? And so, in a free afternoon, I went to the Cambridge (Trinity?) chapel, which has been in operation fro centuries, and sat down to meditate, focusing on the statue of Newton there (and any Newton vibes I could find or imagine). I had some serious abilities at that time (a bit rusty by now), and could focus energy and questions and links rather well. “Help!.. Oredr form chaos...! Any clues? Can we talk..? I really need help here..”

And then, that night... there was plenty of time to sleep, and time for the period of “astral dreaming” I usually had in those days, maybe about 5AM.

In the dream... here I was in some vast space... and a voice spoke to me above. “I have been giving some serious consideration to your request. It meets  high standards or worthiness, and I am inclined to grant it. However, there are certain things we need to discuss first.

“The soul you were hoping to contact has a very special karma. You know karma is, tings that someone must work on. He had and has all those capabilities you refer to, but had special karma in understanding certain kinds of feeling and the needs of the opposite sex. Thus this great soul has been reincarnated into a form which makes it impossible to avoid learning a lot more about those other aspects of life. And so, this soul has been incarnated in the following form...”

Flash to an image which I should not describe in all detail, but which certainly took my breath away.

The voice continued: “To receive the boon you request, you must do something in return. Would you be willing to fully meet HER needs as they are in this new incarnation?”

“Well, sir, I don’t know if I can. I am just a normal person in some ways. But certainly, I would be very honored to try very hard, without equivocation, and promise to do the very best I can. I would certainly be very, very motivated.”

“Very well,” said the voice, “It shall be so. Things shall be so arranged.” I remember looking out the window of the bus as I left Cambridge, wistfully thinking that I never even saw anyone like that in Cambridge, and sadly feeling it was probably all just a dream. Until 1996, when my life and hers had gone through many changes (curiously supportive of this new direction, though seeming painful at the time)... and a huge wave of response and recognition hit me the moment I first saw her as I entered NIST for that conference.

Of course, that has remained in my mind always, even as other stories and events occur, and so on. I have generally satisfied my curiosity about “order from chaos,” with new things in process now, but lots more “in a desk drawer until people are ready.” So many other young Luda stories totally consistent with this image... but .. not for now. She understands better than I do the need to be careful about not saying too much too soon;
Some might accuse her of occasional “paranoia,” but it is caution very well grounded in real-world experience.  


OK, one more story.

In my last month at NSF, I went to the coffee station to get some hot water for tea, and talked about lots of little things with a female colleague. Somehow I slipped out the view that Luda might well be the most intelligent woman on earth. I didn't make a big deal of it... but the instant I let it slip out, the expression on her face really, really responded. I can tell that a part of her felt a bit challenged and threatened... but she forcibly controlled that response... and said: "Wow!  ALL husbands should believe that about their wives. It is a great thing that a husband should believe that about his wife.
They all should. This should be an example..."

But I thought back to bits of evidence. For example, I knew nothing about operator field theory (the field theory of field operators, built on creation and annihilation operators which are functions of space or of space-time) or about Fock-Hilbert space until I was 21 years old, in graduate school But she has nice friendly nostalgic memories of going to a grassy, sunny park at age 15, sitting under a tree, and reading Feynman's work on that subject, as a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon. In the early years of our marriage, she showed me some books in Russian on constructive and axiomatic field theory covering aspects I had never seen in the US literature, and connections to the theory of characteristic functions which I had never seen in the US high energy literature.

But no, none of us are infallible. We all have lots and lots of things we have to adjust to, especially if we intend to learn more.

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