Happy 40th Birthday Dana!

The following is what I read at Dana’s 40th birthday party last night. Don’t worry, it’s being posted with her approval. –SA

I’d like to propose a toast to Dana, my wife and mother of my two kids.  My dad, a former speechwriter, would advise me to just crack a few jokes and then sit down … but my dad’s not here.

So instead I’ll tell you a bit about Dana.  She grew up in Tel Aviv, finishing her undergraduate CS degree at age 17—before she joined the army.  I met her when I was a new professor at MIT and she was a postdoc in Princeton, and we’d go to many of the same conferences. At one of those conferences, in Princeton, she finally figured out that my weird, creepy, awkward attempts to make conversation with her were, in actuality, me asking her out … at least in my mind!  So, after I’d returned to Boston, she then emailed me for days, just one email after the next, explaining everything that was wrong with me and all the reasons why we could never date.  Despite my general obliviousness in such matters, at some point I wrote back, “Dana, the absolute value of your feelings for me seems perfect. Now all I need to do is flip the sign!”

Anyway, the very next weekend, I took the Amtrak back to Princeton at her invitation. That weekend is when we started dating, and it’s also when I introduced her to my family, and when she and I planned out the logistics of getting married.

Dana and her family had been sure that she’d return to Israel after her postdoc. She made a huge sacrifice in staying here in the US for me. And that’s not even mentioning the sacrifice to her career that came with two very difficult pregnancies that produced our two very diffic … I mean, our two perfect and beautiful children.

Truth be told, I haven’t always been the best husband, or the most patient or the most grateful.  I’ve constantly gotten frustrated and upset, extremely so, about all the things in our life that aren’t going well.  But preparing the slideshow tonight, I had a little epiphany.  I had a few photos from the first two-thirds of Dana’s life, but of course, I mostly had the last third.  But what’s even happened in that last third?  She today feels like she might be close to a breakthrough on the Unique Games Conjecture.  But 13 years ago, she felt exactly the same way.  She even looks the same!

So, what even happened?

Well OK, fine, there was my and Dana’s first trip to California, a month after we started dating.  Our first conference together.  Our trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon.  Our first trip to Israel to meet her parents, who I think are finally now close to accepting me. Her parents’ trip to New Hope, Pennsylvania to meet my parents. Our wedding in Tel Aviv—the rabbi rushing through the entire ceremony in 7 minutes because he needed to get home to his kids. Our honeymoon safari in Kenya.  Lily’s birth. Our trip to Israel with baby Lily, where we introduced Lily to Dana’s grandmother Rivka, an Auschwitz survivor, just a few months before Rivka passed away. Taking Lily to run around Harvard Yard with our Boston friends, Lily losing her beloved doll Tuza there, then finding Tuza the next day after multiple Harvard staff had been engaged in the quest. There’s me and Dana eating acai bowls in Rio de Janeiro, getting a personal tour of the LHC in Switzerland, with kangaroos and koalas in Australia. There’s our house here in Austin.  Oh, and here are all our Austin friends! Our trip to Disney World with Lily, while Dana was pregnant with Daniel (she did ride one rollercoaster). Daniel’s birth, which to my relief, went well despite the rollercoaster. Our sabbatical year in Israel. The birth of our nephews.

I confess I teared up a little going through all this. Because it’s like: if you showed all these photos to some third party, they’d probably be like, wow, that looks like a pretty good life. Even if you showed the photos to my 17-year-old self, I’d be like, OK, no need to roll the dice again, I’ll take that life. I’m not talking about what’s happened with the world—climate change or COVID or the insurrection or anything like that. But the part with the beautiful Israeli complexity theorist wife, who’s also caring and unbreakable in her moral convictions? Yes.

So, thank you and a very happy birthday to the one who’s given me all this!

And lastly, because it seems almost obligatory: I did feed everything I said just now into GPT (I won’t specify which version), and asked it to write Dana a special GPT birthday poem. Here’s what it came up with:

From Tel Aviv to Princeton,
You’ve traveled near and far,
A brilliant computer scientist,
A shining, guiding star.

You’ve made so many sacrifices,
For family and for love,
But your light shines through the darkness,
And fits me like a glove.

We’ve shared so many moments,
Too many to recount,
But each one is a treasure,
Each memory paramount.

So happy birthday, Dana,
You deserve the very best,
I’m grateful for your presence,
And feel so truly blessed.

Addendum: Speaking of GPT, should it and other Large Language Models be connected to the Internet and your computer’s filesystem and empowered to take actions directly, with reinforcement learning pushing it to achieve the user’s goals?

On the negative side, some of my friends worry that this sort of thing might help an unaligned superintelligence to destroy the world.

But on the positive side, at Dana’s birthday party, I could’ve just told the computer, “please display these photos in a slideshow rotation while also rotating among these songs,” and not wasted part of the night messing around with media apps that befuddle and defeat me as a mere CS PhD.

I find it extremely hard to balance these considerations.

Anyway, happy birthday Dana!

37 Responses to “Happy 40th Birthday Dana!”

  1. fred Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Scott, very sweet & entertaining post!
    Happy Birthday Dana!
    Wish you both many many more years of happiness!

  2. Amir Michail Says:

    Don’t you think it is time for AI researchers to find a cure for loneliness using chatbots like ChatGPT?

  3. JimV Says:

    Congratulations and felicitations. On AI training, my thought is that before being trained and used on specific mundane tasks, each copy should start with the prior results of training on the legal and “best” morality rules of human society (as we would like it to be). Just as children, possibly even yours, need some training in “right and wrong”.

  4. Ryan Alweiss Says:

    That’s a really nice story! Happy Birthday Dana!

  5. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Congrats to Scott and Happy Birthday to Dana!

  6. bystander Says:

    Happy Birthday!

    Oh Scott, you will not trick us. It’s easy to see that the photo is from Dana’s 30th birthday. 😉

  7. Raoul Ohio Says:

    I have some friends with a band named DANA. HMU if you want a band tee shirt with a cool DANA logo on it.

  8. William Gasarch Says:

    It seems like she went from telling you what was wrong with you, to planning the logistics of marrying you, in about a week.

    Love can indeed be a discontinuous function.

    But— what happened that week?

  9. Daniel Reeves Says:

    Oh my goodness, everything about this is absolutely beautiful. Congratulations!

    PS: I asked ChatGPT to reproduce the poem and I think it’s safe to say which version of GPT you used there. 🙂

  10. OhMyGoodness Says:

    A wonderful post for a beautiful wife. Some people have all the darn luck.

  11. Eric Saund Says:

    I have had occasion to give a short speech about the keys to my grandfather’s success. One of them is that he married the right person. Evidently, same with you. Congratulations!!
    BTW, your blog and your work are treasures.

  12. manorba Says:

    “Even if you showed the photos to my 17-year-old self, I’d be like, OK, no need to roll the dice again, I’ll take that life. ”

    From here it looks like you rolled a 20 😉 . Difficulties and hard times are inevitable in one’s life, but man hold on to what you got!

    “But the part with the beautiful Israeli complexity theorist wife, who’s also caring and unbreakable in her moral convictions? Yes.”

    Ain’t that so. They let us play while they care about the important stuff…

    Happy birthday to Dana and happy new year to everyone!

    ps. i think i’ve seen just another photo of your wife where she appeared light skinned and blonde/red, but in this last one she looks very mediterranean (and stunning). Can’t help but feel some familiarity 🙂

  13. Christopher Says:

    > Speaking of GPT, should it and other Large Language Models be connected to the Internet and your computer’s filesystem and empowered to take actions directly, with reinforcement learning pushing it to achieve the user’s goals?

    I guess there’s only one way to find out XD

  14. Free Tate Says:


    Have you considered that bragging about your successful love life on this blog might be painful for the many lonely nerdy incel readers who will never find sex and love like you, because society has denied it to them?

  15. Scott Says:

    Free Tate #14: A little, but it’s outweighed by my hope that they’ll be inspired that if I could eventually figure this out then so can they.

  16. Shmi Says:

    Is there a quantum version/analogue of the Unique Games Conjecture?

  17. Dimitris Papadimitriou Says:

    Happy new year, everyone!

  18. Scott Says:

    Shmi #16: Here’s a paper from 2007 that formulates a direct analogue of the Unique Games Conjecture with entangled provers, and then shows that that analogue is false.

  19. Daniel Seita Says:

    Hi Scott,

    This is a lovely blog post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    One question I have is: how do you handle the delicate situation of trying to make friends with people in a situation where there could be a power imbalance? For example, if I am faculty, it might be very delicate for me to approach someone “below” a faculty (such as a postdoc or a senior grad student) to initiate a friendship? I am unsure how I would be able to manage a situation like that, and if I am a faculty (which hopefully I might be soon…) I feel like I might avoid such interactions unless there are completely confined to professional things like having a research meeting, etc. If this is an awkward question, feel free to just ignore this; I was just wondering your perspective on trying to navigate such social settings.


  20. Scott Says:

    Daniel Seita #19: I don’t know the answers to those questions. I’ve been struggling with them my whole life.

    But certainly, the fact that in this blog’s history, I’ve reacted as strongly as I have against the discourse demonizing “creepy STEM nerds” is not unrelated to my own life story. Many of my critics would surely, surely have warned me never to ask Dana out. No matter that she was at Princeton while I was at MIT, and that I’d never been in any supervisory role over her. No matter that she was a postdoc while I was a new professor, not too great an imbalance—it was an imbalance nonetheless. No matter that she ultimately said yes, and that we’re now married with two children—for how could I have known at the time? There was a power imbalance, and it could indeed have made her uncomfortable. And if I was in the slightest doubt—which I was—then I shouldn’t have done it.

    To sum up, my only shot at happiness in life, was the direct result of ultimately choosing to set aside the above line of reasoning.

    And yet surely the reasoning is valid in other cases! Surely reasonable people will draw the line differently! That’s why I’ll insist to my dying day that this stuff is complicated, against the self-certain ideologues of every persuasion.

  21. Vanessa Kosoy Says:

    Happy birthday Professor Moshkovitz!

    I want to chime in about the topic of Daniel Seita #19. I’m currently in grad school, very belatedly (I’m a couple of months short of 40), and I’m disappointed by my inability to form any social connections there. There are probably other reasons too, but at least one factor is: most students are much younger than me, whereas faculty members, AFAICT, think it’s inappropriate to befriend a student. So, personally I wish everyone would just stop using this mindset.

    I admit there are some situations where there can be a conflict of interest between professional judgement and personal relationships. But, just having different rank doesn’t make it so. Not to mention that, the notion of “different rank” depends on the somewhat arbitrary tradition within an organization to have the rank-scale fine-grained to a particular degree.

  22. Boaz Barak Says:

    Happy birthday Dana! So happy I got a chance to give a minor help in this beautiful life by organizing that Princeton workshop 😉

  23. Daniel Reeves Says:

    Scott #20: You’re reminding me of this gem: https://scottaaronson.blog/?p=2091#comment-329963 — Or the “borschting” protocol, as Bethany and I call it, where you very gradually escalate the relationship, maintaining plausible deniability at every step in case the other person doesn’t reciprocate.

  24. Qwerty Says:

    How incredibly romantic – your love story and this post! Inspiring and BEAUTIFUL.

  25. fred Says:

    Free Tate #14

    Have you considered that bragging about your successful love life on this blog might be painful for the many lonely nerdy incel readers who will never find sex and love like you, because society has denied it to them?”

    I guess I should sue Scott for possibly making me feel like shit because I have never published a single paper and don’t have a wikipedia entry with my name on it?
    Or maybe I should be happy for him and not feel sorry for myself?

    Lonely nerdy incels are just gonna have to deal with whatever afflicts them, like everyone who’s been born “sub-optimal” in some areas (i.e. 99.9999999% of the population).

  26. Triceratops Says:

    Wonderful toast Scott, and happy birthday Dana!

    As for your addendum, it’s related to a question that’s been giving me anxiety recently.

    I prefer being anonymous on the internet. I worry that sometime in the future, LLMs (or whatever comes next) will be able to sift through the web and pull up everything I’ve ever written, commented, or posted — regardless of my attempts to stay anonymous — by correlating my writing style, or cross-referencing metadata from my browsing history, etc. I worry that, by simply plugging my name into an AI search, all my anonymous online identities will be revealed, dating back to when I first started using the internet as a teenager. Maybe AI will even be able to hack my email, god forbid.

    Is this just my cybersecurity paranoia acting up? Is what I’m describing even theoretically possible, given the transient nature of data on the internet? Any words of comfort would be greatly appreciated 😛

  27. Dana Says:

    My recollection of how Scott and I started dating is somewhat different from Scott’s. I’m spelling it out here, only because I think it’s worthwhile to know how it actually looked from the side of a nerdy 20+ year old girl.
    Importantly, I didn’t understand that Scott was trying to ask me out, because:
    (1) My general impression from reading Scott’s blog was that Scott and I could be friends (and only friends). I was interpreting everything according to how I thought things should go.
    (2) From reading Scott’s blog, I knew that Scott had a girlfriend, so I assumed that Scott’s intentions were similar to mine (Apparently, they broke up the year before).
    (3) I was used to awkward nerdy guys, and generally took it upon myself to deal with the awkwardness, carry a small talk, etc. I didn’t usually view myself as a cause of their awkwardness.
    (4) I generally insisted on explicitness. Either someone asks me out or not. I won’t assume anything unless they do.

    When Scott finally confessed in email that he wanted to date, I politely declined. Then I thought about it some more, and it occured to me that, at the core, Scott might be what I was looking for. I then insisted that Scott asks me out properly and nicely. He then proceeded to insult me instead (!) I think that at this point I insulted him back.

  28. Scott Says:

    Dana #27:

      He then proceeded to insult me instead (!) I think that at this point I insulted him back.

    And the rest is history…

  29. Andrew Wilson Says:

    A few observations:

    In person dating in great. School and in person conferences are a great way to casually meet people that isn’t really replicated any other way. Travel probably comes closest if it involves a similar age tour group or youth hostel.

    I’m a huge fan of seeing couples travel together. Once upon a time I worked at a hotel front desk in a resort area. I consider it a very good sign when couples are successfully able to travel together.

    Guys are absolutely expected to ask the girl out. A direct approach is best. Be clear that the interest is romantic (not platonic or friend), and that it will be just the two of you meeting up. A low key walk around campus or a nearby park or lake or similar with maybe a coffee or ice cream afterward if things are going well is a great first date, in my opinion.

    If the girl says ‘no’, move on (and possibly improve yourself and/or your approach, if needed). The exception is if the girl reaches out with a counter-offer, as Dana apparently did in this case.

  30. T Says:

    Thanks for sharing this heartwarming post. I wish Dana a happy year ahead.

  31. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Cargo Cult Quantum Factoring Says:

    […] The Blog of Scott Aaronson If you take nothing else from this blog: quantum computers won't solve hard problems instantly by just trying all solutions in parallel. Also, next pandemic, let's approve the vaccines faster! « Happy 40th Birthday Dana! […]

  32. Nilima Nigam Says:

    I am a long-time reader of this blog, but ‘awwwwwww’ is rarely a reaction the blog elicits. This post hereby attains the ‘No. 1 Loveliest Entries on Shtetl-Optimized’, along with the ‘All time best reader comments’, a certain Dana in Comment #27 🙂

    “… I thought about it some more, and it occured to me that, at the core, Scott might be what I was looking for. I then insisted that Scott asks me out properly and nicely. He then proceeded to insult me instead (!) I think that at this point I insulted him back.”

    Happy birthday, Dana!

  33. asdf Says:

    Happy birthday Dana! A little bit belated. And get well soon!

  34. asdf Says:

    Well, it looks like doomsday preppers are scared of ChatGPT now, so that’s something:


    I haven’t yet watched that whole video, but it actually looks interesting and I’ll try to check the rest later.

    Meanwhile I’ve come around to the view that ChatGPT is actually intelligent. I.e. whatever intelligence is, ChatGPT implements it. Yes it’s “just” a Markov process over a language model, but I can’t agree that calling it intelligent overestimates Markov models. Rather, saying that Markov models are unintelligent overestimates intelligence.

    It looks like something like PAC learning emerges automatically from the model. It is able to figure out rhyming and scansion and generate text that usually approximately rhymes and scans. So for general reasoning, it just needs some inference rules. Then it can generate PAC reasoning and filter it for soundness, which is all that humans do anyway. Augment it with a SAT solver and it will be king of the nerds, just like AlphaGo became king of Go.

    I don’t think I’m ready!

  35. Qwerty Says:

    Best post in the entire blog, through time :). Just so wonderful. I had to comment once more to say this.

  36. Baruch Garcia Says:

    Happy (belated) birthday, Dana!!

  37. Marcus Says:

    Hey Scott,

    thanks for this lovely post! Me and my girlfriend, who are not as brilliant as you two, but follow similar passions, have liked reading your story and poem very much. Could you maybe tell us how the sentence “ when she and I planned out the logistics of getting married” is meant? Were you more jokingly considering these logistics or already serious on them?
    Thank you and sorry for our impudent curiosity.

    Best, Marcus

Leave a Reply

You can use rich HTML in comments! You can also use basic TeX, by enclosing it within $$ $$ for displayed equations or \( \) for inline equations.

Comment Policies:

  1. All comments are placed in moderation and reviewed prior to appearing.
  2. You'll also be sent a verification email to the email address you provided.
  3. This comment section is not a free speech zone. It's my, Scott Aaronson's, virtual living room. Commenters are expected not to say anything they wouldn't say in my actual living room. This means: No trolling. No ad-hominems against me or others. No presumptuous requests (e.g. to respond to a long paper or article). No conspiracy theories. No patronizing me. Comments violating these policies may be left in moderation with no explanation or apology.
  4. Whenever I'm in doubt, I'll forward comments to Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians, and respect SOCG's judgments on whether those comments should appear.
  5. I sometimes accidentally miss perfectly reasonable comments in the moderation queue, or they get caught in the spam filter. If you feel this may have been the case with your comment, shoot me an email.