Thoughts and experiences on various topics: puzzles, games, AI, collaboration, music, politics, and whatever else is on my mind

Pittsburgh, PA  – CMU (1979-1981)

The first step in my career path was moving to Pittsburgh (with my new wife) in order to work as a programmer in the Psychology Department at CMU (Carnegie-Mellon University).  I turned down an industry offer from Texas Instruments at a higher salary.  I was always interested in academia, and I worried that transitioning from industry to academia (and taking a likely salary cut) would be more difficult than the opposite transition.  I was also curious to experience CMU, since it was another of the major U.S. centers of AI Research (along with MIT and Stanford).  The programming work was supported by an ONR contract and involved work on learning, so I was excited about it.

At CMU, the Psychology Department and Computer Science both worked on AI and machine learning, led by the famous duo of Herbert Simon (Psychology) and Allen Newell (Computer Science).  In addition to the faculty, I found the graduate students in both departments to be very friendly, welcoming, and stimulating to interact with.   A number of long-term friendships arose out of my time at CMU.

Pittsburgh had somewhat of a negative reputation, so I was prepared to be disappointed by it (relative to Boston/Cambridge which I loved!).  I was pleasantly surprised — the city was much cleaner than it was in the past, and the people were friendly.  Though it didn’t offer all that Boston did, there was still plenty to do.  I have fond memories of going white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny River, visiting Fallingwater (Frank Lloyd Wright house), and playing lots of tennis and racquetball with friends and colleagues.

One of the things I most enjoyed about CMU was the more accepting attitude toward research involving games and puzzles.  Newell and Simon studied (and wrote the book on) Human Problem Solving, and used puzzles such as Tower of Hanoi and Missionary and Cannibals as vehicles for exploration.  Richard Korf even wrote his Ph.D. thesis (in CS) on an algorithm to calculate macro-operators for solving Rubik’s Cube and 15-puzzle among others.  Hans Berliner studied and made contributions to computer chess playing.

During my time at CMU, I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Langley, then a new post-doc in Psychology, having written his PhD thesis on BACON, a machine approach to scientific-discovery.  He and I hit it off due to our mutual commitment to Machine Learning as a key to AI, and have become life-long friends.  I have vivid recollections of participating, along with Pat and many others, in a project to build a simulated world as a testbed for AI and ML research.  This group, called by the somewhat grandiose name of world-modelers, sparked numerous interesting discussions.  We all shared a commitment to the idea that simulating a testbed environment had numerous advantages compared with the “real world” as used in robotics work:

1. No worries about “hardware” breaking (a bane of robotics researchers)

2. Greater reproducibility or results

3. Ability to modify the (simulated) environment in carefully controlled ways

4. Software can be copied and shared, so simulation tools can easily be used by many other researchers

5. A simulated environment can be simple (if desired),  to allow focusing on critical issues.

The last point was actually controversial within the group.  I advocated for starting out with very simple “worlds”, because those could be more easily programmed, getting us to the actual AI researching business much more quickly.  There were others, especially with interests in machine vision, that argued for a realistic 3-D simulated physical environment.  I would have been quite content with a simple, abstract, 2-D grid-world. Unfortunately, this issue divided the group, and my recollection is that things never really “got off the ground”.  Nevertheless, I continue to this day, to believe that simulating simple grid-world environments is a valuable way to explore AI/ML.

Not much to say about my marriage during this time, though my wife expressed unhappiness about Pittsburgh (she complained that it wasn’t near the ocean), and I speculate that she may have harbored a touch of resentment at “following me there”.

Northampton, MA – Hampshire College (1981-1985)

Sadly, the funding ran out for my programming work at CMU, and after just under a year, I found myself unemployed.  I began a job search, including looking at private schools and some colleges.  I was thrilled to receive an offer to teach Computer Science at Hampshire College (in South Amherst, MA).  Hampshire College was (and is) an experimental college, created as a “5th college” to join Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, and U.Mass. Amherst.  It was designed and started in the late 60’s, during the same time period that ESG (see earlier post) was formed at MIT.   Hampshire and ESG have a number of similarities.  They are both committed to student-directed education, fostering a shared sense of community, interdisciplinary studies, and educational innovation.  I jumped at the opportunity to join the Hampshire faculty, and so in Summer 1981, my wife and I moved to Northampton, MA, where we lived in an apartment adjacent to the Smith campus.  My wife was happy to be back in Massachusetts and closer to her parents who lived north of Boston.

I loved the “5-college area”, which was like a smaller-scale Boston/Cambridge.  I enjoyed all that the 5 colleges had to offer in terms of both social and academic activities and stimulation. I made many friendships, both on and off campus, and at Hampshire with both faculty and students.  I found the students at Hampshire to be very motivated and energetic, and it was a pleasure to interact with them.  Students propose their own courses of study, so I had many meetings with students to discuss projects and areas of study.

I was part of the School of Language and Communication (called “L&C” for short).  Hampshire had 4 Schools, rather than departments, in part to encourage interdisciplinary interaction.  L&C (later re-named to Communication and Cognitive Science) had 2 primary foci:  cognitive science (psychology, linguistics, math, logic, computer science, and philosophy) and communications studies (media, history of technology, among others).  I was the faculty person representing AI and computer science.

While Hampshire encouraged individual student projects and studies, there were also courses taught by faculty.   Team-teaching was encouraged, and I have fond memories of co-teaching a number of courses with colleagues.  Perhaps my favorite was called Structures of Computation where we examined the different levels of organization involved in computation.  This covered the span from low-level hardware (transistors, gates and flip-flops) through high-level software such as compilers and interpreters (and all the levels in-between, such as ALU’s, microcoding, machine code, and assemblers).  I am fascinated with how complex structures can be built up out of simpler components (modules).  Perhaps this stems from all the time I spent playing with wooden blocks, lincoln logs, and bricks (pre-Lego) as a very young child.  I believe this powerful concept of modularity, and hierarchical (layered) structuring, is a cornerstone of most if not all areas of engineering.  I think it is fundamental, as well, to learning and skill acquisition (but more on that another time!).

In 1981,  I bought my first personal computer, an Apple II+, along with (dot-matrix) printer, modem (300-baud!), color monitor, and 2 external floppy disk drives.  It seems unbelievable today that this machine could do all it did with only 64K of RAM (and that was the “souped up” hardware configuration). I remember programming in LOGO and Apple BASIC.  LOGO was the turtle-graphics language pioneered by Seymour Papert for use in teaching children computational and mathematical thinking and problem-solving.   Later, I added a SoftCard (Microsoft’s early Z80 hardware plug-in board), so I could run CPM as well.   I have fond memories of playing around with this computer.  I spent more than $4000 on the computer, peripherals, add-ons, and software.  Amazing how over the years computer performance has increased so much, and prices have dramatically declined!

One of my initiatives at Hampshire was an attempt to create an ESG-like program for computer science students, which I called The Learning Community (TLC).   It was enthusiastically embraced by a number of students, and we had regular meetings, published a weekly newsletter, and engaged in learning and sharing about a variety of interesting topics.  The greatest impediment to greater success was that we lacked a dedicated physical space where our community could congregate to interact – this seemed to be a key ingredient in ESG’s success.  Nevertheless, I was encouraged by the student’s enthusiasm, and hoped to continue to grow the program.  I even explore seeking dedicated space in a dorm in order to “house” TLC.  This would have improved, in my opinion, on ESG, by further integrating living and learning which is an ideal I fully support.  Unfortunately, not all my faculty colleagues shared my enthusiasm for TLC, and I paid a political price for “forging ahead” with it (more later).

Parenthood!  (Aaron born June 18, 1983)

I always knew I wanted to be a parent.  My relationship with my own father was a mixture of positives and negatives (more on this another time).   I aspired to be the kind of “ideal” father that I had always wished for.  I got my chance to try when my first son, Aaron, was born on June 18, 1983.  This was a highlight of my life!  It was also a wonderful Father’s Day present, since Aaron arrived on Saturday morning at 6:18 a.m.(was he a budding numerologist?  6:18 on 6-18-83!), which was the day before Father’s Day that year.   I sat down (at my Apple II) that night, and wrote a long letter to my son, hoping he’d read it when he was older.  I remember expressing my excitement, and hopes and aspirations for our relationship, and encouraging him to grow and develop into the best person he could be.

Parenthood wasn’t easy, though.  There were many sleepless nights, diapers to change, feedings to do, etc.  The stresses exacted a toll on my marriage, unfortunately.  I was also still dealing with my teaching work at Hampshire, and facing a reappointment review during the 1983-84 academic year.

The positives were truly great, and I have absolutely no regrets!  I remember we bought a video camera (an early Olympus VCR cassette system) shortly before the birth, and I had a great time learning to use it, and then documenting Aaron’s early development!   Also, the part of me that is a “researcher into the nature of intelligence” was fascinated to observe Aaron’s development.  It was fascinating, for example, to see how the “simple” skill of turning over, actually is painstakingly learned through trial and error.  Aaron wanted to be on his stomach, since then he could move around a little.  When placed on his back he was “stuck” – but he tried and tried to figure out a way to turn over.  He would twist his back and extend his leg, and eventually (after many days and weeks of attempts) got his body flipped over, with the small residual problem that his arm would get tucked under his body, and he couldn’t get it out – this, too, required some learning to work around.  It’s fun to go back and watch this amazing learning process on the videotapes.

When Aaron was maybe a year old, I remember sitting him on my lap so he could “play” with a program I wrote for him on the Apple II+.  It was a relatively simple Basic program that would respond to any keypress by flashing random colored pixels on the monitor, and at the same time play random beep tones.  Aaron seemed to enjoy this, and soon he was whacking away at the keyboard!  Who knows how much influence this had on his developing into the highly-skilled software developer he is today !?

Not reappointed at Hampshire

My reappointment review did not go well.  My take on it is that my “stubbornness” in pursuing The Learning Community project was viewed as non-collegial, and irked my colleagues.  There may have also been some retaliation for things I candidly wrote during the earlier reviews of some other colleagues (but that’s only speculation on my part).  In general I attribute it to my political naivety and mis-handling interactions with my colleagues.  I was an idealist and maverick, and butted up against institutional conservatism (at Hampshire of all places) and “departmental politics”.

Not getting reappointed placed an excruciating stress on my marriage.  It nearly led to divorce.  My wife clearly was upset at the sudden removal of any long-term economic stability in our marriage, and things gradually worsened month by month.   I was not nearly as concerned – I had sought and found jobs before, and was reasonably confident I would do so again.  I had over a year of “cushion” to look for new opportunities, since my contract gave me a 4th year at Hampshire, even after the decision not to reappoint happened during my 3rd year.  I interviewed at several places, mostly in industry, as I recall, and by January 1985, had an offer from MITRE Corporation in Bedford, MA (at a salary more than twice what I received from Hampshire).  I’ll never forget my wife’s reaction to the news:  “Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to divorce you”.   A mixed blessing at best.  It clearly indicated to me that the primary basis of our marriage was financial.  On the other hand,  I wanted to stay as closely involved with my son as possible, and dreaded the prospect of a divorce, so I was willing and satisfied to continue “working on the marriage”.

Moving to Lexington

I was scheduled to start work at MITRE on July 1, 1985.  My wife and I started looking for a place to live in the Bedford area.  She was naturally pleased to be moving even closer to her parents.  We initially looked at houses in Arlington, but were getting discouraged, and began thinking about renting.  Then “at the last minute” (June, I think) we looked at a house in Lexington.  We had considered Lexington to be out of our price range, but this house (a small ranch) seemed potentially manageable.  We put in an offer that was accepted, and were looking to move in August.   To complicate matters,  in the latter part of June, I attended a Machine Learning conference in Skytop, PA, where I was given a job offer to join GTE Laboratories as a Machine Learning researcher.  I had interviewed with GTE Labs back in January, and it was clearly my first choice, but they couldn’t extend an offer at that time.  So I faced a dilemma – but ultimately the choice was clear – I had to go with my 1st choice and accept the GTE offer, even though it meant backing out of my commitment to start work at MITRE. The Friday before July 1 (when I was to start work) was a rather momentous day:   I declined the MITRE offer (they were really nice about it!),  accepted the GTE offer (yeah!), and to top things off, my wife and I signed the Purchase & Sale agreement for the house in Lexington.  Wow!  So on Monday I started work at GTE Labs instead of MITRE.  Because we didn’t actually move until mid-August, I lived temporarily in a dorm on the campus of Bentley College in Waltham.

Things got better in my marriage during this period, and I was quite happy (at least initially) with my work at GTE Labs (more on this later), and I continued to be a very happy father!

to be continued …

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