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A interview

Romanian Andrei Alexandrescu, a C++ guru

de Vlad Mixich
Vineri, 9 noiembrie 2007, 0:00

Andrei Alexandrescu

Andrei Alexandrescu used to be a rocker. Andrei Alexandrescu used to be a sky diver. Andrei Alexandrescu was a Wall Street consultant. Today, Andrei, a Romanian IT expert working in the field of natural language processing in the United States, is the author of a best-selling programming book and is holding conferences around the world.

Reporter: Many in the computing community speak of you as a guru of C++ programming. How would Andrei Alexandrescu recommend himself before a Romanian empty-pocket pensioner carrying his bag from the market, who knows nothing of computing?

Andrei Alexandrescu: 'Dear madam, dear sir, I am a man like you, with goods and bads, I was just lucky to be born in other times.' I believe that the generation of our parents was a sacrificial one. I still feel sorrow when I think what my parents went through to raise their children.

It is a huge pity that pensioners in Romania are living a life of misery. They have endured the communist gulag, and are now enduring the indifference of new capitalism. They received the worst from everything.

In the nineties, I used to hear that some of the elderly have a nostalgia for communism and I thought of them badly. Slowly I learned that things are not that simple.People had structured their lives in a specific style and found themselves that the whole structure disappeared from beneath their feet. It's devastating.

I read that convicts freed after 20 years want to go back to prison where life has a meaning fro them and don't like it in the outer world, which they find chaotic.

Rocker, sky diver, scientist

Reporter: Your biography looks more like one of an adventurer than of a computing expert. You were the member of a rock band, a parachutist in the Romanian army and a Wall Street consultant. Are there any close links between these and the calm wisdom of a researcher?

Andrei Alexandrescu: There are two somehow contradictory tendencies within each man. One is to play the card he gets the best he can and the other to fulfill what he thinks his destiny is.

The first tendency relates to his capacity to adapt, while the second to a spiritual question that I believe anybody should ask himself, no matter the God he believes in: Had I been built with a purpose, what is that purpose? Once this purpose found, there's no greater joy in life than fulfilling it.

The path of lives of many can be explained as a mix of these two tendencies, and I am no exception. I had to enroll in the army and I thought I'd better make it interesting, so I volunteered to be a parachutist; I enjoyed doing music, so I sang; and I had the luck to get on the Wall Street, so I was glad to learn some of the financiers' secrets.

[c:1:s]But I realize that everything I wanted from childhood was to be a 'scientist'. Later I forgot about it - life was pushing me away. I needed several years to remember. From this perspective, all other occupations were only ways to divert from a road that was clearer from me from childhood.

Did I waste time? Or is it true that a more varied experience enriches you? I don't know and one cannot say. What I can say is that from all possible universes, this is one where I'm happy in, and for that I thank God.

Reporter: Your favorite field of research is Natural Language Processing. Please explain to one who wouldn't understand it easily what is it about and what is it aimed at.

Andrei Alexandrescu: I always told myself that should I be unable to explain my research to anybody in two phrases, it's good for nothing. It's very easy. Natural Language Processing allows a computer to understand the language we communicate with one another - for example Romanian, German or English.

All languages are similarly hard to understand by computers and should we solve one - we solve all of them. When we get there, instead of having to 'learn' how to work with a computer, we would talk to it as if it was a person.

Let me give you an example. Let's say that a friend's birthday is on December 15 and you'd like that on that day every year the computer gives you a beep or an e-mail reminding you to call your friend. It's a very simple task that many programs are now able to do - but they have to learn it and their use is difficult.

But imagine a Star Trek-like scenario: 'Computer! Remind me to call friend Vasile every December 15 at 10 a.m.' 'Of course' - comes the reply. That'd be all!

Computers - an invention on par with wheel and writing

Reporter: Wouldn't it be scary in a world where a computer is ready to listen to you everywhere? Wouldn't it mean cementing the addiction of men to their computers?

Andrei Alexandrescu: Of course it may be scary. I believe such dystopian scenarios have been obsessing us for such a long time already that it's impossible for them to come true. We are too vigilant! Anyway, computers are still very far from the intelligence of humans.

In a way, we're like aborigines who saw a plane flying over, they'd like to build one and are cutting through a tree trunk to build a fuselage. I believe a much more realistic scenario is one where global warming causes a severe fall of the quality of living throughout the world. THAT is an emergency!

Anyway, it's clear that it only depends on us to use technology properly and that we have the responsibility to use it to improve our lives, not to have it more controlled or dull. Today we're truly dependent on computers, but instead of 'addicted' I'd rather say 'helped' or even 'amplified'.

There has not been a tool in history to multiply our power to think and create to such an extent. I believe the only inventions truly comparable to computers are the epoch-making ones, like the wheel or writing. So we are the one to win from this relationship of addiction. And we're only beginning!

European universities are dominated by bureaucracy

Reporter: Some say about Americans that they're 'stupid'. Would this be the reason for which so many Romanians manage to become successful scientists in the United States? Or is there another reason...?

Andrei Alexandrescu: (laughing) I was afraid of such a question. I don't agree with this stereotype. I met many a wise American and in its short history this nation delivered remarkable people. General terms applied to large populations cannot be dealt with but with scepticism.

We Romanians for example tell anybody willing to listen that we are a nation of wise people. Here is a stereotype that I'll never oppose. (laughing again) The next question is, 'then why are you behind other nations who started reform as early as you?' And that's when stammering begins... oh well, you see, the heritage, politics, geography, corruption and so on.

Speaking of it: something that many are saying about Americans is that they never invite you home and they never forge close friendships.

On the other hand, I think about my friends here and see that no New Year's Eve passes without us being invited to a hell of a party; or that no month goes by without dining at a good friend's here in the city; and that we'll soon spend Thanksgiving at some friends for some days - all Americans!

But, returning to the question. Romanians as many others can do science here because it is a science-friendly environment. Generally speaking, research in American university environment is much stronger not only compared to that in Romania but the whole Europe.

In Europe, universities are some governmental institutions dominated by bureaucracy, while in the US universities are much more dynamic - I refer mainly to my field of work.

About Americans, let apart any sort of problems they have - and what society hasn't one? - it's clear they managed to do something important in a consistent manner. They knew how to deliver a way of life that lured many good people from elsewhere and managed to encourage them to excel in what they were good at.

It's not a secret that migrants are contributing to the development of the US hugely and many say that this somehow diminishes the credit 'they' - Americans - deserve. What is forgotten, however, is the reason for which migrants have left their home and kin: they came here because the American society offered them what they wanted, while the society they lived in did not.

Reporter: I noticed at you a slight nostalgia about Romania. You also told me that every minute matters for your work. What about Romania are you missing and why don't you have time to cool it down?

Andrei Alexandrescu: Yes, I'm often missing Romania. It's hard to say exactly why. I was talking to an Indian friend recently and he said he was also missing India but in a different manner that I was missing Romania.

Eventually, every country, every society and nation have their peculiarities; this comes through the power of habit - the peculiarities of one's home country are more dear to her than those of others.

For me, what is good in Romania means parents, the Christmas days of my childhood, the friends with whom I was planning to change the world while having a beer - slowly, not to force us out of the pub; the college days with winters spent in [the Romanian mountain resort of] Sinaia and summers spent in [Romanian seaside resort of] Costinesti, always six in a double room; and all these, dipped in the perfume of familiarity.

About time, what can I say... there's always so much to do. If you want to do many things, you're always late. Fortunately I can say I live a balanced life and that I'm neither career-obsessed, nor self-indulgent. Or at least I hope so...

Reporter: What would you pick between eight hours of inspired work in the research lab and a day with family on top of a mountain?

Andrei Alexandrescu: Considering that I'm more often facing the first activity than the second... a day in the mountains, of course! But I can already see my wife rolling her eyes: "Say what you say, Andrei, but when it's time to leave, who asks whether the chalet is connected to the Internet?"

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