Friday, November 8, 2013

Small World Connections, a Few – From Britain to the New World

I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins from the fall of 1965 through the spring of 1969. During that same time David Hays, who would become my teacher at SUNY Buffalo starting in 1974, would have been finishing up at RAND, where he’d led the effort on machine translation, aka computational linguistics. Hays became founding chair of the Linguistics Department at Buffalo in 1969.

Anyhow, in my senior year at Hopkins I took a course in decision theory. The course was taught by a professor visiting from Britain (Cambridge), R. B. Braithwaite. He was a distinguished man and a character. Talked with a stutter and liked to serve sherry in his office hours; thought it was civilized. Braithwaite was married to Margaret Masterman, who’d done pioneering work in machine translation. One of her students was a man named Martin Kay. Hays had brought Kay to RAND in 1961.

By the time I’d gone to Buffalo, Kay had gone to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center, legendary in the computer biz for various things, including the GUI interface, which Steve Jobs put on the Mac). By that time Hays had become the editor of the American Journal of Computational Linguistics (AJCL), which was published on microfiche. The pages for AJCL were electronically typeset by Martin Kay using a Xerox laser printer to which he had access at PARC.

Somewhere in there Hays had a brainstorm about consciousness which was of a rather technical nature. He put it into a letter which he sent to Masterman – a name I recognized from a now-classic piece she'd written about Thomas Kuhn's concept of a paradigm. I never saw the letter; don’t know whether or not Masterman ever replied. But I do remember Hays talking about this insight, standing there in the library at Twin Willows – his house on a hectare of ground on the shore of Lake Erie. His tone was hushed.

At the time I didn't know that Masterman was married to Braithwaite. And it is only just now that I put these personal connections together.

As those wholesome Disney kids sing, it’s a small world after all.


  1. Hello, William -- a small world indeed.

    You mean Alan Kay, perhaps? I met him once, and he had a recording of Tallis' 40-part motet, Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui, which I'd seen the score of as a schoolboy but never heard performed. So that was a magical moment.

    But then there's Braithwaite. My tutor in theology had me go hear him once, when he came from Cambridge to Oxford, "because it would be good for me to take in at least one philosophy lecture during my time at Christ Church" --, and I was distinctly unimpressed.

    Margaret Masterman is (for me) another matter altogether. She wrote an astonishing paper for the first volume of a small mag called Theoria to Theory which my friend Dom Sylvester Houedard pointed out to me, and since it doesn't seem to be in her edited papers and the original version (parts 1-4 of what I believe were to have been 8) is hard to come by, I posted some of her text plus explanatory matters here:

    Fantastic woman -- fantastic world, my friend.

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  2. No, Charles, I mean Martin Kay. Different man, though in similar businesses. I never met Martin despite all the years I'd worked w/ Hays. I did interview Alan for my book on computer graphics. Over at a place called Crooked Timber – which you ought to visit, BTW, v/ good group blog for politics and economics – I came upon one Chris Crawford in the comments section. He talked about computers in a way that said he really knew something. So I googled him and found out that he'd been a significant player in the computer games business and had been at Atari in the early days. By the dates his tenure there overlapped Alan Kay's. So I asked him and, yes, he'd worked with Kay.

    I never met Masterman, but by all accounts she's a remarkable woman.

    BTW, did you ever run across a classicist named Hugh Tredennick? He's a distant relative on my mother's side – Tredennick, from Cornwall. My mother made fine pasty.

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  4. Well, just so long as there wasn't a third Kay at PARC, all good.

    I hung out with Chris Crawford at a private pre-session he held at one of the Computer Game Developers Conferences, 1996 or 7 perhaps? I think this one was at UCLA. Bunch of good Glass Bead Game talk -- he had a fine group of friends!

    I don't think I met or knew Tredennick, but there's an old saying, "By Tre-, Pol- and Pen- ye may know Cornishmen" -- so I could have pinned his county from the name.

    Always a pleasure...

  5. Yes, it is, Charles.

    Wasn't there a Kay in the Arthurian tales?

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  7. There was, but that was Glastonbury rather than Xerox PARC!

    I knew a lady whose surname was Kay-Shuttleworth in my youth, a friend of my mother's. I don't think of it as a rare name, not common, but occasional?

  8. An aunt of mine when on the road when she was 15 as singer with a band led by Sammy Kaye (with an 'e')–Swing and sway with Sammy Kaye. And then there's Danny Kaye. But in both cases the last name was a stage name. I wonder where the 'e' came from, or, as the case may be, when it was dropped.