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Patrick Winston of MIT CSAIL has died (mit.edu)
400 points by nikofeyn 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

I'm very saddened by this loss. I took him for both 6.034 (artificial intelligence) and his survey course 6.803 (the human intelligence enterprise). Some memories:

1. I still use VSNC (you can read more about it here: http://blog.pptstar.com/?p=441) as a simple model for delivering technical talks. As a coincidence I has already been planning on giving a meta talk about this to my team next Friday. He cared more about, and spoke more about, presentation skills than every other lecturer I had at MIT, combined.

2. He was also the only professor I heard speak about the value of leadership skills and how they can be cultivated.

3. He really did care about his students. I remember his saying to help us get over imposter syndrome, "At MIT, 5% of students think it's too easy, 10% of students think it's just right, and 85% think that at any moment they're going to be found out."

4. I still remember his definition of intelligence as something you almost understand. He would tell the story of giving a preview of an upcoming lecture where they would write a program to do differential calculus. A student came up to him and said "There is no way a computer could ever do that!" After the lecture the same student came up to him and said "That wasn't really AI. The program just does it the way I do it!"

thank you for sharing these

especially love #4

Patrick Henry Winston cared so much about students.

He wouldn't just spend time crafting lectures (which you can see on OCW), but even spent time re-designing the course to try to improve learning and remove focus on the grades[0].

When students needed help, he was always by their side. When the Star Simpson events were taking place, PHW helped institute policies to better support students[1].

He was a true character. I pieced together a Twitter thread to try to show a glimpse of his personality[2]. MIT will not be the same without him.

(Disclaimer: PHW was my academic advisor for 5 years)

[0]: http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/204/winston.html [1]: http://people.csail.mit.edu/phw/star.html [2]: https://twitter.com/futurekennysf/status/1152262290642788362

Many years ago, My TA in 6.034 for some reason gave me a C for the semester. This made no sense because I was 80% sure I was supposed to get an A. I was hesitant to get in touch with the head TA for the class because I wasn't the sort of student to complain about a grade, but I did it anyway. He told me to come in and talk to PHW himself.

I came in and he asked me why my TA would give me a C and I told him I had no idea. He asked me if I came into recitation, I said yes. He asked me if I participated in recitation and I said yes. He told me that they checked on my grades and indeed it was a mistake.

I thanked him for taking the time to review my grade, and that I've never complained about a grade before but it seemed very off in this case. The expression on his face suddenly firmed up from detached to grave and he looked me in the eye and said "Always speak up when you think something is wrong, if you've earned something don't let someone take it away from you."

It's hard to explain, but that instilled a permanent confidence in me. Whenever I've defended myself in my adult life since then, I've felt the confidence of PHW holding me up. It can't be understated how important little pieces of advice like this are for young people. RIP PHW

> He asked me if I came into recitation, I said yes. He asked me if I participated in recitation and I said yes.

Non native English speaker here. What does "came in to recitation" mean. Recitation is the act of repeating something. What was the Recitation about and how can you go in to recitation. Could you please explain ?

A “recitation” session is generally a regularly scheduled classroom session that is not led by the professor or lecturer but by a teaching assistant (TA). These are along the same lines as a “lab” sessions used alongside Chemistry or Physics lectures.

May be it is an Americanism, never heard of the word used in that manner before(as a non American).

In Commonwealth countries at least, some synonyms for recitation are “tutorial” or “study group”.

I think it is rather an American tradition, and it's not not even present at every university here (or at least by that name), but it's also not recent. I've found references going at least to the 1910s.

And “came to” or “came in to” are equivalent to “attended”

In many schools/universities in the US, recitation is a kind of discussion class where a small number of students attend for more focused problem-solving/teaching

RIP Professor Best teacher I've ever had, he let me audit all his classes and took me/my ideas seriously at all times. And would grade my papers even though I was never an official student, or his his words "a paying customer." First Minsky now Patrick. RIP and perhaps they are both back in touch. ;(

Instead of thinking about how they are both back in touch, why not assume a step further. They are in touch, and they are hoping that you are doing _______ with the most passion [in which they have yet to witness ;)].

Now fill that in and use it as adrenaline to accomplish your next (big, relatively) feat.

Your thoughts?


I prefer to view it as an opportunity to attempt to fill the big shoes that are now sitting empty, and hopefully do good in the world in the process, even if we don't manage to fully fill the big shoes.

And then maybe even inspiring the next generation, thus continuing the cycle.

It feels meaningful to me and doesn't require any big assumptions :)

I appreciate you friend

I would like to consider this and get back to you

I would love to stay in touch. makhani.samir@gmail.com

I only met him in passing when at MIT but some of my colleagues worked more closely with him. Everything I've heard is absolutely true. People sometimes get cynical and believe that nice people can't be that nice (á la Mr. Rogers), but he really was that kind.

I think the thing that speaks the most to his personality is how the brief friendship he struck up with Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas [0]:

> Will likes to see stuff at MIT whenever he is in town. This time I took him to see robots in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, wearable computing in the Media Lab, and miscellaneous cool stuff in the Precision Engineering Research Group. It wasn't hard to find people to help out.

> We walked around for three hours. Then, he was off to do soundchecks. A few hours after he learned about energy-storing inverse lakes, he and his Black Eyed Peas played to a sold-out crowd at the TD Banknorth Garden.

> I always like amazing people, like Will, who is highly creative, does interesting things, and is interested in the future. MIT attracts amazing, highly creative, interesting, interested people like honey attracts bears.

> And on top of all that, Will is a fan of my field, Artificial Intelligence. Check out the Peas Imma Be Rocking That Body video.

> Anyway, when Will and his entourage were about to leave, and all the obligatory pictures were taken, he asked, as he generally does, if I could use a few tickets for the show. “Hey, that would be great,” I said. I like the Peas, and besides, I hadn't been to a good concert since the Rolling Stones were in town in '06.

> Alas, my daughter seized the tickets. “You're nowhere near cool enough to go,” she said, “and I have some friends.” Maybe I should find a new place to buy clothes.


[0] https://people.csail.mit.edu/phw/favorites.html

Wow. Clicked [0] and was lost.

"Mutual respect is the stuff from which great education emerges."

RIP Pat Winston - he infuriated me the most when he said something so obviously true and which I wanted to be false. One example: "No one will ever read your paper in entirety, so write for the skimmers." As much as I loved his technical lectures, I especially remembered his peripheral aphorisms.

But he said one thing that I immediately agreed with (conceptually) and have recalled at many hard times in my life: "Perhaps we will look back on even this with fondness." (But in Latin, because Pat Winston)

"No one will ever read your paper in entirety, so write for the skimmers."

Fantastic advice!

also applies on resume I suppose

His excellent "How to Speak" lectures can be found at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9F536001A3C605FC

About a year ago, he shared that he had a draft of a new book on "Communication":


Was this ever finished?

It was!

It's in the final stages of publication — I've seen an editor's print in its final form — although I'm not sure what will happen to it now. I would guess it will still be published.

You seem close to someone who will announce the publication. I would be grateful if you would post their announcement on HN when the time comes.

Very sad, he was an amazing teacher. I love his MIT 6.034 lectures on youtube. One of the best is the SVM lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PwhiWxHK8o -- it's awesome how he gives the lecture to completion without any notes.

I went to MIT my first year as a summer intern to work with a different professor than Patrick, this professor was close with him and since he liked my work so much asked Patrick to write a letter of recommendation for me to stay at MIT since I needed two.

I took both of his classes and used to "steal" the coffee from his office since he had an espresso machine and we needed it for our 3am late nights. Fuck.. its rough to think that place in my life is disappearing a bit more everyday. 3 professors from my time there are gone already, Minsky, Seth Teller and now him. :(

He was a wonderful man. I took 6.xxx with him and liked it so much that I started attending his group meetings and eventually asked him to be part of my thesis committee.

Some of the best mentoring I have received on the inner workings of academia came from Patrick. A great example: his theory of presentations, where he had a wonderful template: Vision, Step and News, i.e., the grand theory of your research, the concrete steps you're taking in the next year or so and the latest findings. He gave me that advice two days before my defense and it worked like a charm.

A great teacher, a great mentor and a great human being. I will miss him.

I'll never forget meeting him practicing his lectures in building 32 at 5am. Every lecture he gave each year was a fresh one: he rewrote them every year.

I always looked forward to attending 034 lectures and learning from his STAR sub-lectures. Using a lot of those lessons now.

Not to mention the great contributions he's had in science and in developing some of the greatest scientist; Winston's flame will not burn out.

He used his talents wisely, lived a life that's an inspiration to us all who remain. May the Lord comfort his family and may his soul rest in peace. RIP fellow beaver

I had him for 6.034 and knew him from working in the lab. He was a great scientist and a good person.

He had more patience for me than I deserved.

This makes me very sad. Patrick H. Winston was a brilliant man and a very nice person. He was my student advisor at MIT and agreed to serve on the advisory board of a startup company I founded. I had the privilege of meeting him again at his lab a few years back. He was still doing leading edge research and had tremendous enthusiasm for his work and his students. He will definitely be missed.

You have been extremely lucky. I only had him for 6.034 and the overall encouragement he gave me and so many other students. Solving death simply must be a higher priority.

RIP, my first intro to Winston was when I was a lad in high schools and got the LISP book that also goes by the name "Winston & Horn" Still an excellent LISP book.

Stumbled upon it at a library. It was a refreshing style. I wish it was used today.

I loved his series of "On To" books, e.g. "On To C", "On To C++", "On To Java". They were perfect when I was starting out and remained models of clarity when I started teaching.

Yes, both the motivation[1] and the format[2] of these books is very effective and quite unique. It's a shame no one else has carried on in this style for more recent languages.

In addition to Java, C, and C++, Winston also wrote On to Smalltalk[3].

[1] An introduction to a particular language for readers whoe are already experienced programmers.

[2] Content is presented in numbered short paragraphs, many just a single sentence long. He calls these paragraphs "slides" but they are more concise and pointful than the slides people usually show at talks.

[3] http://people.csail.mit.edu/phw/Books/index.html

OtS is wonderful. Such a succinct and effective pedagogical style.

I only had a few hallway conversations with him, but they were always delightful and I always walked away having learned something new. He was a good scholar and an admirable human being. RIP.

I really liked his advice on how to pack and present ideas using the Winston Star formulation http://muratbuffalo.blogspot.com/2016/06/how-to-package-your...

Patrick Winston was one of the last of the old-guard of MIT -- the type of professor who genuinely cared about students, acted with integrity, scientific progress, and was the soul of the old Institute.

A few remain, but not many.

I'm deeply saddened by each loss. The soul of the Institute dies a little bit more each time.

The only exemplar I can recall right now still living is Merritt Roe Smith, historian of technology. Do you know of more?

Sussman is still around. There are also a few newer professors that I think try to uphold these standards. Ed Boyden comes to mind- he also was an MIT undergrad, and although not as involved with student culture as PHW, he is amazingly responsive to students in his classes. I've had him answer emails with my shitty ideas like 4 am the night I send them, which is crazy given what a busy guy he is

Gerald Jay Sussman. But yes, they're a rare breed. When I asked an MIT professor to name a few people in the Institute with uncompromising integrity, they could only think of three. Jerry and Pat were two of them.

In this age, it's nearly impossible to make professor at MIT, let alone tenure, without lapses of integrity.

Haynes Miller who I think is still around (math dept) is a good person with tons of integrity who cared a lot about me as an undergrad, and was very devoted to teaching undergrads in an accessible way. Mike artin (algebra Prof) is a fabulous lecturer and human being too --he's emeritus but hangs around campus a ton. Two of the few bright spots of my depressing years at the institute.

His first AI book, along with Bertram Raphael’s book Mind Inside Matter, were the two books that got me charged up about AI and changed my career and my life.

Patrick Winston will be missed.

Patrick Winston was a AI Pioneer, I watched some of his MIT Lectures and read his book that was truly world class.

He was a great man, I loved his courses at MIT. Definitely the best teacher I have had. RIP Prof. Winston.

Thanks to him GNU was allowed to happen

Winston was always a pleasure to meet. He had asked his students to send him a postcard when they would visit places. I sent him postcards for the first few years after MIT. He was always enthusiastic and warm, and respectful.

VSNC, Star - Story, Slogan, Salient, Surprise, Symbol

In January of 2016, I wept because Minsky died and because PHW lost someone who meant so much to him.

Today, I can't sleep because I can't stop crying.


Thanks for delivering on your 6.034 empowerment promise, and thank you for being the inspiration and a reason to continue onward in my mission.

This is a great loss. Coincidentally I just started reading his thesis last week: https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/13800

I remember him telling a story about his Racoon, and thinking that a famous and busy man who was kind enough to adopt and love a Racoon, and wise and humble enough to consider it and to try to understand how it thought, was a very great human.

I wanted to attend MIT since i was ten, though sadly it didnt happen for me (because of choices)

But one thing is that i am always amazed (and saddened) on HN when i hear about the death of a pillar of our industry whom i had never previously known about.

He does have wonderful lectures on MIT OCW


I find his presentation style is not only clear, but relaxing. It's like a friendly sermon or something.

His style is easy to understand, though in that video the conclusions he comes to about reasoning and language symbols and vision are pretty poor, I’d have thought even in 2010 MIT would have been farther along at least.

I still (attempt to) follow his guidelines for writing. Patrick Henry Winston, z"l

I think I'll always use VSNC, I also remember him every time I use "since" to mean "because", although I rarely correct that one lol

Proudly say that his was the only class I voluntarily attended during my time at MIT even when I didn't have to. Still remember how simple he made everything. It was about learning and not about taking tests. RIP

Was lucky enough to hang out with him and Marvin Minsky at Marvin's home in 2014, which PHW organized as a seminar. A generally surreal experience. Some things I recall: both had great understated senses of humor. PHW and Marvin even at their ages remained interested in 'figuring things out' but also were fond of laughing at what they didn't understand, or rather maybe where their knowledge gaps were. It was immediately clear why they were friends and colleagues.

Hi friends, we have created a website to memorize Prof Winston. Would you like to share your story with Prof Winston on https://www.memoriesofpatrickwinston.com/discussions? Let's form our memories into a Human Story Enterprise for him :)

RIP Professor Winston!

I really enjoyed your AI lectures. For example, the SVM lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PwhiWxHK8o=_PwhiWxHK8o=_Pwh...), is by far the best explanation of SVMs I've ever heard, highly recommended!

It's people like this that do such an incredible service to our future generations that really makes a difference in the world.

i wonder what it must feel like at mit with two of its titans gone (minksy and winston). are there others stepping in their place? abelson and sussman are still there. in a world where machine learning has taken over "ai", it doesn't feel there are many left who have the ability and interest in researching general artificial intelligence.

They are there, but they're largely marginalized by the newcomers. I think the deeper problems -- than ML taking over AI -- is the commitment to students, to scientific integrity, and to substance over hype and self-promotion.

Up until around five years ago, the course 6.034 had a Fall version and a Spring version. They were substantially different. In the Fall it was taught by Patrick Winston, and in the Spring it was taught by other professors who were 10-20 years younger than Winston.

It's my understanding that the Spring professors really disagreed with the content in the Fall version. It was too old-school AI and they believed it was a disservice to students to teach them AI in that way. I believe they marginalized Winston.

To be honest, I cannot tell if they are right or wrong. I am not familiar with the curriculum in Winston's 6.034. How much does it look like an AI textbook from the 90s? I know that he included topics such as SVM, which is, relative to Winston, newer AI.

But, in any case, I do wish that the two philosophies didn't butt heads. Especially because I have no doubt that Winston's course was better organized, and had more enjoyable lectures.

I think this sentiment certainly existed among some of the younger CSAIL professors- in fact I interviewed for a UROP once with an unnamed professor and they asked "what related classes have you taken so far?" And as soon as I said 6.034 (before I could even finish the list) they said "I'm sure that class is fun but so is a cooking class, it isn't relevant here".

But I'd like to think it wasn't the prevailing sentiment in the department. I actually think a little bit of it stemmed from jealousy about the student praise PHW received. Because I know plenty of students that are now doing more "modern" or "hardcore" ML research that praise 6.034 highly.

It's true that 6.034 did not teach enough math to jump right into theory research, and it's true it didn't teach enough modern implementation to go right into an industry application. But it certainly didn't look like a textbook from the 90s! Professor Winston reworked the course a little bit every year. He gave excellent lectures on the concepts behind deep learning and reinforcement learning. He brought in current professors to present their research goals almost every Friday.

It covered plenty of modern topics, just in a more abstract sense. Which is perfect for an intro course, especially one that is taken by not just CS students but those from many departments (even graduate students in architecture, business, etc.). I think it's so helpful to start with understanding these concepts and then work through the details, rather than start in the weeds like many other courses do.

He did also spend time covering older concepts, which are still good to know, especially when presented through the lense of the history of the field (in academia and business). That's just not something available in any other courses that I'm aware of. Same thing with his amazing communication advice and his sharing of interesting biology, psychology, and neuroscience research.

I sincerely hope 6.034 will continue on somehow in the spirit of the original course. It was inspiring to many students, with life/career lessons that are memorable well beyond school. MIT has plenty of good more traditional ML courses, as do many schools. What I haven't heard of elsewhere is something like 6.034. It was one thing that made MIT unique I think.

Anyway, that is rambly, but I just wanted to defend not only the execution, but the philosophy of 034 (or my take on it anyway, can't speak for PHW). And I hope that the minority that dislikes it doesn't try to take over the course now.

I was very privileged to meet both Prof. Winston and Prof. Josh Tenenbaum briefly a couple of years ago. This brought home to me the plurality and strength of the MIT faculty. There are many amazing people at CSAIL, some of them are focused on specific issues of engineering, maths or neuroscience, but there are still a core of people (Prof. Tenenbaum is not alone in this) who I think are looking very widely and deeply at fundamental issues of cognition and mind.

To read and contribute remembrances about this great man, Patrick H. Winston, welcome to https://www.memoriesofpatrickwinston.com/remembrances. His research works, talks, photos and more can also be found on that site.

In January of 2016, I wept because we lost Minsky and because PHW lost Minsky.

Today, I weep because we lost PHW and because I lost PHW.


Thank you for delivering on 6.034's empowerment promise.

My mission remains the same, but I can no longer hope to show you its results.

I took all my 034 tests in his office because I needed extra time. He would pack up and go work somewhere else so I could use his desk, would tell me to take as long as I needed before he left.

Spent countless hours/days with his Lisp book. One of my favorites.

Great person, too.

I only ever "knew" him from the OCW lectures on Youtube, but he seemed like a real class act. And certainly a major contributor to the advancement of CS and AI. He will be missed.

R.I.P., Mr. Winston.

I still remember his lessons from Artificial intelligence course. Such a great professor. He easily had audience caught his attention. May his ideas be shared and cherished. RIP

RIP. I'm deeply saddened by this news.

How did he die?

I fondly remember his LISP book.

RIP, Prof Winston was beloved.

The best lecturer at MIT... this is so sad.

My very first Lisp book. Never met him.

can someone re-edit the title to change "Csail" back to "CSAIL", the way i had it in the first place? a moderator must have incorrectly edited the title, because "Csail" is incorrect.

> a moderator must have incorrectly edited the title, because "Csail" is incorrect.

It's not a human moderator, it's the ALGORITHM (TM)! It seems Hacker News has a capitalization algorithm that automatically capitalizes the title to proper news headlines.

Most of the time it works well, but sometimes it would ruin intentional caps and it's pretty annoying. And mysteriously, it doesn't always trigger for all titles, it must have a set of hardcoded pattern-matching code.


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