Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rajeev Motwani Memorial

I just returned from the technical workshop and memorial in honor of Rajeev Motwani. The workshop was excellently run by Ashish Goel, and designed (extremely well, I thought) as a mix of retrospective and technical content, with one speaker presenting a brief retrospective and introduction, and a technical speaker laying out a body of work.

The topics were varied: they started with Sanjeev Khanna discussing matchings in random graphs (Rajeev's thesis work), and going onto brand new results in this area: for example, an expected time O(n log n) bound for matchings in d-regular bipartite graphs. Piotr Indyk talked about locality-sensitive hashing, David Karger talked about randomized min cuts, Aneesh Sharma discussed monetization problems in social networks, and Sudipto Guha concluded with a overview of data streams.

The talks were surprisingly technical: if I closed my eyes, I could have easily imagined being in a SODA conference room. The only difference was that people were actually paying attention, as opposed to clicking away on laptops (or tweeting!). It was a large crowd: over 100 people, by my casual count.

There were many retrospectives, given by Dick Karp, Jeff Ullman, Chandra Chekuri, and Ron Conway. Chandra spoke in particular about the experience of being Rajeev's student, and as a former student myself, his words touched me the most. He talked with feeling, compassion and honesty, and drew a compelling picture of a man that we began to know all over again.

There was a beautiful memorial service in the Stanford Church, with words in English and Sanskrit, a hauntingly beautiful hymn from the Vedas sung by Rajeev's elder daughter, and testimonials from colleagues and friends old and new. Don Knuth was the organist for the entire ceremoney, and played pieces you didn't think could be played on a church organ. After the service, and a reception, there was a concert by one of Rajeev's favorite bands, Indian Ocean. They played amazing music, and I'm downloading their songs as we speak, but that's a tale for another time.

It was good to go back and meet people who I knew so well for a brief period of time, and then lost touch with. Many (if not all) of Rajeev's former students were there, and there were many others who cohabited the Gates Building along with me. All of us older, a little grayer, but still recognizable :). Spread-apart families often only get together at weddings or at funerals, and this was one of those occasions where it was great to see everyone, but as we all kept murmuring "unfortunately it had to happen like this".

If I had to describe the feeling that dominated my thinking that day, it was a sense of being robbed. Upon hearing testimonial after testimonial, anecdote after anecdote, listening to this divine rock group that Rajeev listened to and loved, I could only wonder at the many sides of this person whom I knew so little of. I wished I had known more about him: that our interactions had been more multidimensional than that of advisor and student, and that I (and my fellow students at the time) had seen more of the ebullience and vivacity that others spoke so vividly of.

By the end, a new picture began to emerge, of a 'hub', a 'connector' and a 'facilitator', someone who had the clarity to know what people really needed to succeed, and the self-effacement to stand back and make it happen, by connecting people together. He helped legions, and legions came to bid him farewell.

It therefore seems oddly fitting that his career in research started with studying random matchings, and ended with new explorations of social networks. His life, one might think, has always been about creating, analyzing and enriching connections.
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