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Remembering Frank Rosenblatt

Frank Rosenblatt died tragically young 50 years ago, in a boating accident on his 43rd birthday on July 11, 1971. These reminiscences by Terry Koken, previously published only in the talk section of Rosenblatt’s wikipedia entry, give some rare and valuable insight into his intellectual genius and his life.

Part 1 (originally published April 15, 2009)

I worked for Rosenblatt on the Cornell Cognitive Systems Research Program from June 1960 to January 1962, and again from January 1965 to June of 1968. He and I roomed together at 125 College Ave. during the first stint, and I later lived in his house on Middaugh road in Brooktondale. In some ways I probably can claim responsibility for his buying the house.

I was an almost-lifelong astronomy buff, and thought I would eventually make it my profession. As a sixteen-year-old freshman at Cornell, I borrowed some paper from Rosenblatt in the Willard Straight Music room, and became acquainted with him. I must have in some way impressed him, as he stopped by the squalid quarters I was inhabiting in Syracuse shortly after my 18th birthday and offered me a job on his research program at Cornell, programming digital computers. It paid a little more than two bucks an hour, for that time an almost unheard-of wage for one of my tender years. I took it, of course.

Rosenblatt was a confirmed bachelor, and evidenced no visible interest in the opposite sex that I could discern. Whether he had any interest in the same sex is something none of us who worked for him ever speculated on; he was eccentric, and fun-loving, and had a hell of a good sense of humor, and such speculation just didn’t seem to matter. At any rate, my enthusiasm for astronomy must have been contagious, and at the same time he was looking for something to spend an accumulation of cash against, and he decided to buy a telescope. He chose a Fecker 12-1/2″ Cassegrain, complete with equatorial mount and drive, to the tune of about three grand worth, which was roughly nine months’ pay for me; an almost overwhelming amount. The instrument was custom-built, and it took some time to arrive (I think more than six months, but my recollection may be faulty). Realizing that College Town in Ithaca was a poor and improper place to put a telescope, he started house-hunting, and in just a few weeks had found and purchased a fine old brick house on twenty-five acres on Middaugh Road in Brooktondale, six or so miles east of Ithaca. Most of us who worked for him also moved in there, since the twenty-five thousand dollar price-tag on the real estate was a bit steep for him to manage without some people helping out by paying rent on rooms. We broke ground for the observatory in, as I recollect, summer of 1961. I must admit, I felt a little nervous over my role in this; I felt responsible for coaxing a friend, mentor, and employer into outlaying an overwhelming sum on one of my enthusiasms. But we dug, and poured foundations, and laid block, and built a pier just the same.

Some of the people involved were me, George Nagy, Steve (Steven Jon) King, Chuck Tappert, Dick Venezky, Trevor Barker, Dave Smith, our secretary Eirlys Tynan, her husband Mick, Dave Block, a math professor, and probably some others whose names I’ve lost in memory. Rosenblatt had the house painted white, and had a fireplace and chimney built, and bought a grand piano (he was an accomplished pianist, even though he could and did improvise endlessly on “Three Blind Mice”).

At some point in the construction of the observatory, the matter of telescope size came up in one of the not-infrequent bull sessions we would have after a day’s effort. I’m a little unsure of how we got there, but Rosenblatt boasted that he’d have at least a sixteen-inch scope on the premises within five years. The boast almost immediately became the subject of a wager: I bet him five bucks that this would not happen; he countered with an amendment that would give him a dollar an inch for anything over sixteen (I’d collect five dollars if I won, but would pay up to ten if I lost). We were, as I recollect, drinking beer at the time, and by and by I lost track of the details of the bet.

In 1962, I left staff at Cornell to return to university, this time at Syracuse. I endured a semester there, the assasination of a president, a sophomore slump, and in 1964 moved to Rochester and got married. My wife and I visited Rosenblatt in late 1964, and he made me another offer of employment, which I accepted. As 1965 came to a close, Rosenblatt remembered the bet, and, realizing he was about to lose it, got busy.

SETI was at that time something many were interested in. Most of the search at that time was being done at the 21-cm hydrogen wavelength. Townes’s ruby laser was, however, a very recent invention, and Rosenblatt reasoned that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would be better done at visible wavelengths, where the very coherence of an electromagnetic wave would be a reasonable measure of intelligent origin of the signal. To this end, he designed a “Stellar Coherometer” which would ascertain whether emission in the spectra of stars was coherent radiation or not. He had connections with granting agencies, and was something (!) of a wheeler-dealer; he called up somebody he knew at NASA, I think it was, and, as it was near the end of their granting period and they had some unspent money in their vault, got told he could have seventy-five thousand dollars yankee for the project, which, by the way, included a twenty-inch telescope, to be housed on donated land at 119 Middaugh Road, Brooktondale, NY. Cornell would have to administer the grant, of course.

The Cornell administration took a look at it, and, horrified that the name of such a prestigious institution should be associated with such an outre` project, distanced themselves as far as possible from it. Rosenblatt, never one to give up easily (he climbed Mount McKinley once!) went across the valley to Ithaca College, and got himself an appointment as an associate professor there, so that they could administer the grant. They would get a fine research observatory out of the deal, so it was much to their liking. To the entire project’s extreme disappointment, however, the appointment took just a little longer than it should have, so that the grant period for that fiscal year had elapsed by the time it came through. The seventy-five thousand, unspent, reverted to the U. S. Treasury and was never seen again.

Part 2 (Originally published November 3, 2009)

Recollections of Rosenblatt: The following are anecdotal, some hearsay, some as told by Rosenblatt himself to me, and are my recollections; thus they may be faulty or incomplete.

He did both his undergraduate and graduate studies at Cornell, which was at that time not a very common practice; but Cornell has one of the most scenic campuses in the world, and I suppose that may have been a factor. He was a practical joker, and maintained that any practical joke must be well-tailored to its recipient. He and some others, whose names I never learned, drove to the town of Gibson one fine night, and stole the town’s “Gibson” signs. They trucked them back to the Psychology department in Morrill hall, and mounted them at the door of Professor Gibson’s office. When Robby MacLeod, department chairman when I was there, came in and saw them, he remarked to the department secretary, “Don’t you think Gibby’s getting a little ostentatious?” –The signs, according to Rosenblatt, were eventually cut up for use in various projects around the department.

Rosenblatt built a digital computer for the Psych department, I believe while he was a grad student there (?). It was named EPAC, for Electronic Processing and Analyzing Computer, and it was remarked that the vacuum tubes in it would serve to make about a hundred and fifty record players. When I was there in 1958, only scraps of the machine remained, but I don’t think anyone made record players out of it. 

Rosenblatt was enthused about digital computing, and spent a lot of time in the Cornell Computing Center. He used the machinery for reducing data in various rat-psychology experiments, and gained vast experience thereby. As I recollect, the first machine he worked on was a “Card-Programmed Calculator”, a pretty primitive machine about which I know little more than its name and the fact that its memory and its program were the deck of cards you put into it. The IBM 650 that Cornell later got was a big step up for them. It was a two-address magnetic-drum memory machine, which could add two bi-quinary ten-digit numbers in, as I recollect, two 96-microsecond cycles. General opinion when the 650 arrived was that it was pretty lame, and that such a prestigious institution should have had an IBM 704 instead (This is complaint passed on secondhand; I was not there until the university got their Burroughs 220), but for many years Cornell ran second-best in computing: the CPC when opinion said 650; the 650 when perhaps they should have had a 704; the Burroughs 220; instead of an IBM 7090, a CDC 1604, which was later replaced by an IBM System 360 Mod 67, whose multitasking operating system did not work for the first two years (as I recollect). Rosenblatt’s researches involved simulation of neural networks on these machines. His feeling was that a Perceptron needed to have a large associator layer; something above a thousand A-units was necessary to get most of the brain-like characteristics that the beast seemed to promise. Such simulations involved generating instructions to access and sum random cells in the machine’s “retina”; you’d write a program that generated as many “ADD” instructions as the unit had excitatory connections, and as many “SUB” instructions as it had inhibitory ones, and the process was repeated for each associator unit, so that for a large Perceptron you got a generated program that pushed the boundaries of available magnetic-core memories. Cycle-time was very important, therefore; at five thousand operations per second (Burroughs 220) you could eat up lots of computer hours before getting anything useful out, but forty-thousand (IBM 704) would make much faster work of it.

Rosenblatt’s PhD was inked in, I believe, 1954 or so, so that he was dealing with pretty primitive machinery. Under such circumstances, one had to be very efficient about one’s code. Rosenblatt, in order to get time on the various machines, became pretty adept at this, and once told me that out of sheer desperation, he re-wrote and optimized a sociology student’s CPC program so that he could then take over the ninety percent of the time she was using that the rewrite saved her.

He was pretty good friends with Bruce W. (Tuck) Knight, Jr., a physicist as I recollect; Tuck had spent some time at Los Alamos and Eniwetok. Tuck was braumeister of the Collegetown Old Undershirt brewery, and usually had a batch in the crock, one aging in the bottle, and the currently drinking batch. The recipe was simple: Six gallons of water, one can of malt (Blue Ribbon Hop-flavored Malt syrup), five pounds of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt; add yeast and let it ferment for a week, skimming off the foam as it boiled up; bottle in quarts with a teaspoonful of bottle sugar to carbonate it. Occasionally you’d get a pretty potable batch, but mostly it was not what you’d call premium beer, its virtue being that you could get drunk on it. It took its name from the fact that you covered the crock with an old undershirt to keep flies and other undesirable elements out of the fermenting brew. Tuck had brewed beer on Eniwetok, and at Los Alamos. He collaborated with Rosenblatt and Dave Block on a seminal paper on four-layer perceptrons, which was the predecessor to Rosenblatt’s analysis of the cross-coupled system, and which promised some interesting results as far as pre-processing of stimuli went.

Just before I went to work for Rosenblatt the first time, I brewed a batch in Syracuse. Some time later I brought a quart of it down to Tuck’s apartment, and the three of us broached, decanted, and drank it, and Tuck pronounced it acceptable, but insufficient. However, the only brew available at the time had been bottled only two days before. I think we consumed two or three quarts of the green stuff, and I have vague recollection of drawing an enormous abstraction in pencil on Tuck’s kitchen wall before staggering home; the following morning’s suffering convinced me that consumption of such stuff was not a good idea, and taught me the real meaning of “hangover”. Tuck and Frank, however, seemed little affected. I went down to Tuck’s to view my artwork some time later, when I was feeling a little better, but Tuck had already sponged it off the paint. Ah, well.

Occasionally when bottling the brew one got distracted, and dumped a second teaspoon of sugar into the quart one was working on. When this happened, an explosion was the sometimes result, delayed enough that usually people were away from the brewery at work or elsewhere when the explosion happened. Tuck told of one instance when they’d come back and found brown glass embedded in a wall some forty feet from the bottles, and a landlady complaining of a “brown sticky fluid” dripping through her ceiling.

At one time shortly before my arrival, one Hong-Yee Chiu, a physicist, camped at Tuck’s place for a while. Hong-Yee built his own perceptron, a fairly small system; he had a pretty good sense of humor, and Rosenblatt later showed me some of the A-units from it: Hong-Yee had drawn faces on each of the plaster-potted A-units. He decided at one point that Old Undershirt was not potent enough, and took a couple of quarts up to the Physics department in Rockefeller Hall, and distilled it. I did not see or taste it, but was told that he brought back a Coke bottle full of a noxious substance that tasted like fire and was somewhat dangerous to drink. Many years later, I ran into Hong-Yee’s daughter on a Caltech website. I think she was entirely unaware of her dad’s stint at Cornell.

Readers should feel free to correct any faulty recollections they may encounter here, with my thanks. –Terrell E. Koken

Handouts on ties in HS

The handouts on ties by John McCarthy and Kathryn Pruitt linked from the OT-Help 2 manual on p. 11 are now available from these links (the links in the manual are dead):

10th Northeast Computational Phonology Meeting

The 10th NECPhon will take place at UMass Amherst on Saturday 9/24.  The talks, breaks, and lunch will all take place in/around N400 in the Department of Linguistics, which is in the Integrative Learning Center (650 N. Pleasant St). It is the building directly north of the pond on the map here.

Parking is free on weekends at most university parking lots (all those not circled on the map as 24hr enforced). I would suggest lots 62, 63, or 64 for proximity to the department.

Please see below for the schedule.

11-11:30 Arrive & Welcome

11:30-12  Erin Olson (MIT) “Intermediate Markedness and its consequences for the GLA”
12-12:30 Spencer Caplan and Jordan Kodner (University of Pennsylvania) “A computational model of vowel harmony acquisition
12:30-1 Kristina Strother-Garcia (University of Delaware) “Local inviolable constraints: A new approach to syllable well-formedness in Berber

1-2 Lunch (provided)

2-2:30 Aleksei Nazarov (Harvard University) and Gaja Jarosz (UMass Amherst) “Learning parametric stress without domain-specific mechanisms
2:30-3 Uriel Cohen Priva, Emily Gleason, and Rachel Gutman (Brown) “Toward an information-theoretic assessment of phonological and phonetic cost”
3-3:30 Ariel Cohen-Goldberg (Tufts University) “Integrating grammatical and processing accounts of lexical frequency”

3:30-4 Break

4-4:30 Chris Neufeld (University of Maryland) “Towards a biological theory of phonetic category perception
4:30-5 Alena Aksenova, Thomas Graf and Sophie Moradi (Stonybrook University) “Tier-Based Strict Locality in Phonology and Morphology”

5:30 Business Meeting

6pm Informal Dinner

CAMML Publication Style

Continuing the very useful discussion we’ve been having on the new conference on Computational and Mathematical Modeling in Linguistics (here and here), I’d like to invite further discussion of the choice to do short paper (6-8pp) submissions instead of the usual abstract submissions for linguistics conferences. We had a little bit of discussion of some pros and cons of this choice on the original post, mostly relating to the potential conflict/competition of publishing something there as opposed to ACL or CogSci. Kyle Rawlins recently raised a number of potential issues with us by email, and I’d like to relay some of these concerns and invite more general discussion of these and other considerations.

To summarize Kyle’s concerns (Kyle, please feel free to comment below to expand on or correct anything):

  • The time and infrastructure burden for reviewers and organizers is substantially more than for reviewing abstracts. This might make it harder to find reviewers and organizers.
  • There is no culture of submitting conference papers for review in linguistics, and it’s a much greater time commitment/risk to prepare a paper to submit to a conference than to prepare an abstract. Could this discourage linguists from submitting? (especially if there is another relevant conference whose submission only requires preparing an abstract?)
  • It’s not clear how such publications should/would count for tenure and hiring purposes in linguistics departments. In many departments only journal publications count, and this kind of publication could preclude a journal publication.

It’s clear that this would be a novel approach for linguistics and that this approach could potentially discourage participation of linguists, which is not our goal. So, the other side of the equation is – is it worth it? What are the advantages of this approach and would these advantages outweigh these or other potential costs? I advocated for paper submission, hoping that peer-review would improve the quality of the work presented at the conference and have the potential to elevate the status of the papers published there as well as the status of the conference itself. Could this status be elevated enough for these papers to count as short journal papers, on par with brief articles or squibs in journals, for purposes of tenure-review and hiring in linguistics departments? And if not, how problematic is this?

What do you think about the relative risks and potential benefits of this approach? What other considerations are there?

Name that Conference! (and a summary)

In our previous post, we hosted a discussion about a new conference for linguists and cognitive scientists on computational and mathematical modeling. In this post I’d like to solicit comments and suggestions about possible names for the conference. Before I lay out some existing suggestions for commentary, I’d like to summarize the overall plan and goals for the conference that emerged from that discussion:

Highest Priority Goals

1) We need to attract the core constituents to this conference, especially the first meeting. The core constituents are linguists/cognitive scientists who rely on computational/mathematical approaches and are concerned with questions about the human language faculty.
2) The conference should be accessible and affordable to linguists, including students. (to repeat from earlier, this rules out co-locating with ACL)
3) The conference should have quality, peer-reviewed paper submissions. I see this as an important move for the field of linguistics in general, not just this conference. This does not rule out the possibility discussed in the comments above of also having submissions of other kinds, such as presentation-only submissions which have possibly appeared elsewhere.
4) We want the meeting to be sustainable long-term, with room to become a 2-3 day ‘go-to’ event in linguistics/cognitive science.

High Priority Goals

5) Ideally, the conference would alternate US-Europe every other year rather than being solely a US conference to be inclusive of the international community.
6) Ideally, the conference would be a welcoming/accessible place to linguists who want to learn more about computational/mathematical approaches but don’t (yet) do that sort of work themselves. One way to do this would be to introduce a half-day of workshops or tutorials to initiate the conference. I’m not necessarily proposing this for our first meeting, but something to keep in mind for later.
7) Avoiding Balkanization. As we set up specialized conferences, we may contribute to the balkanization of our field (e.g. we may pull computational work out of AMP). To some extent this balkanization is an inevitable consequence of the specialization that is occurring as linguistics grows, but if we can avoid it, so much the better.
8) Increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in computational linguistics.

Overall Tentative/Consensus Plan
1) The first meeting is to be tentatively held at UMass in Fall 2017 in conjunction with a one-time workshop on computational modeling of language (invited speakers, pending funding, include Jacob Andreas, Emily Bender, Sam Bowman, Chris Dyer, Jason Eisner, Bob Frank, Matt Goldrick, Sharon Goldwater, and Paul Smolensky). The exact schedule is unknown at this point, but tentatively the new conference may be on a Friday or a Thursday-Friday, with the workshop probably Saturday-Sunday.
2) The second meeting is scheduled to be in Paris in Fall/Winter 2018, organized by Giorgio Magri.
3) We will have a general discussion of hosting options for subsequent meetings at the first meeting at UMass. One prominent possibility is holding the third meeting in conjunction with the LSA annual meeting in New Orleans in Jan. 2020.
4) The current plan is still to have paper submissions, possibly published with the ACL anthology (though stay tuned for another post to discuss this further).

Ok, so on to the candidate names! I think the current favorite in offline discussions among us is “Computational and Mathematical Modeling in Linguistics” with the acronym CAMML or CAMMIL or maybe even CAMMLing or CAMMILing. What do you think? I like that it is clearly about linguistics and that it is inclusive of both computational and mathematical approaches, and that it has a cute and pronounceable acronym. Earlier variants had “Linguistic Theory (LT)” or “Theoretical Linguistics (TL)” in them (like CLINT, CALT, CAMLT, or CATL, etc), there is also the option to add “meeting” (M) or “annual meeting” (AM) or “Society” (S) or “conference” (C) somewhere (yielding things like CALM, AMCTL, SCATL, etc). I’m sure there are many other possibilities, but I will leave off here with my favorite: CAMML (or is it CAMMLing).

Conference on Computational Approaches to Linguistics?

A group of us have recently been discussing the possibility of a new conference on computational approaches to linguistics (group=Rajesh Bhatt, Brian Dillon, Gaja Jarosz, Giorgio Magri, Claire Moore-Cantwell, Joe Pater, Brian Smith, and Kristine Yu). We’ll provide some of the content of that discussion in a moment (we=Gaja and Joe), but the main question we’d like to get on the table is where the first meeting of that conference should be held. It’s so far agreed that it should be co-located with some other event to increase participation (at least for the first meeting), and the end of 2017 / beginning 2018 seems like the right time to do it. The ideas currently under discussion are:

  1. In conjunction with the Annual Meeting on Phonology in New York in early fall 2017. (We haven’t approached the organizers about this).
  2. In conjunction with a one-time workshop on computational modeling of language planned for fall of 2017 at UMass (invited speakers, pending funding, include Jacob Andreas, Emily Bender, Sam Bowman, Chris Dyer, Jason Eisner, Bob Frank, Matt Goldrick, Sharon Goldwater, and Paul Smolensky).
  3. As a “Sister Society” at the LSA general meeting 4-7 January in Salt Lake City (we have had preliminary discussions with the LSA and this seems very straightforward)

We’d very much appreciate your thoughts on the location or the substance of the conference as comments below, or use this google form to give a non-public response.

The original idea was to start a computational phonology conference, inspired by the success of the informal meetings that we’ve had as the North East Computational Phonology Circle, and by the central place that computational work has in phonology these days. But Giorgio pointed out that a broader meeting might well be of interest, and we seem to have come to a consensus that he’s likely right. It doesn’t seem like there is a general venue for computational linguistics of the non-engineering-focused kind, though we are aware of successful workshops that have been held at the ACL and elsewhere (e.g. Sigmorphon, MOL, CMCL). These workshops are in fact also part of the inspiration for this; however, the conference we envision would be broader in scope and co-located with a major linguistics conference to attract as many linguists as possible, minimize costs, and minimize additional conference travel.

We still think that a core contingent might well be the computational phonologists, especially at first, so we still think co-locating it with AMP might make sense (plus NYC is a good location). We’ve also had suggestions that we might in some years co-locate with other conferences, like NELS – the location of future meetings is something we could discuss in person at the first one.

We also seem to have come to a current consensus that we’d like to have reviewed short papers in the CS / CogSci tradition. This is an extremely efficient way to get research out. The one worry that was expressed was that this may create a barrier to later journal publication, but at least two journals with explicit policies on this (Cognitive Science and Phonology) allow publication of elaborated versions of earlier published conference papers.

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Worst abstract review ever

“No data, yet combines two or more of the worst phonological theories, resulting in an account that is far more complicated and assumption-laden than the simple if typologically odd pseudo-example given.”

I received this review on an abstract I submitted recently. I’ve gotten plenty of bad reviews in the sense of them being negative, but I’ve never gotten one that was so unprofessional, and that made it so clear that the reviewer hadn’t engaged with the abstract in anything but the most superficial fashion. Because I didn’t think this reviewer was doing their job, I was moved to complain about it. I did so as follows:

“I’ve never complained about a conference review before, but this is one’s beyond the pale. I don’t want you to do anything about it, but I had to tell you I’m pretty shocked by it.”

The conference organizer reported that the program committee agreed that the review was unprofessional, and that this reviewer, along with another who had engaged in “soapboxing or axe-grinding”, would not be included in the list of reviewers passed on to the next year’s organizer.

I was pleased with this outcome, and I thought I’d tell this story because this seemed like a good way of improving the quality of reviewer pools that others might usefully adopt. I’d also be happy if this contributed to a general discussion of what the expectations are for reviews, and how we can make them better.