Jul 26

Are You Having Fun? Memories of Prof Winston in 2018-19


Edited: Jul 31


Are you having fun?


Prof Winston asked me this question several times during my visiting semester at MIT. I was shocked to hear his curious tone when he asked it-----what's the point of measuring one's fun when assessing if she was suited for graduate school?


But after working with him for a year, becoming his PhD student, and living in the devastation after his passing, I now realized-----that is all the point.



Episode 1 - A Special Beginning


I came to know Prof Winston in 2016 by searching for "AI lecture" on YouTube. I was then a freshman, studying Information Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and having no plan for my future.


I remember staring at his lectures, feeling awed and inspired. I liked that when he asked "Do you prefer a demonstration?" cool things would happen on the screen, then another cool thing. I liked that when he said "you may ask... you might have..." a big idea would follow that explained something so clearly in 5 seconds, then another big idea. I liked that he knitted his brows and he told little stories. I liked that he walked close to the students. Sometimes he wrote on the blackboard, and then he would soon come back close to me.


Even though it seemed impossible for me to switch to AI at that point, I kept him in my dreams. In 2017, my opportunity came with the MIT Special Student program, which enabled students from other universities to take classes at MIT. I ended my application essay saying "(I) may have the opportunity to sit in his spring class 6.803 (Human Intelligence Enterprise). There is nothing that I dream and aspire to do more."


Luckily, I was admitted. Because I drew better than I wrote, I emailed him for the first time on 1 Jan 2018 with a drawing of him:

He replied with a comment:

I note that people who draw pictures are smarter, because we humans think with our eyes as well as our special human faculties.

What a complement! When most people look at a drawing, they only see a nice drawing. But Prof Winston saw me.


I said I agree by sending another sketch about why I think drawing can make people smarter. Then we started chatting about what subjects I plan to take.


I had known that it would be difficult to get into 6.803 because it is a lottery class reserved to regular MIT student (only a portion of registered students will be accepted into the class). I was told that if I take the class, "he'd be throwing out a regular MIT student who may also have that dream."


Maybe, I could, still try? I replied to Prof Winston that my top wish was to take his 6.803 and I hoped the lottery could bless me. And because my plan was to gain a PhD in AI and to become a professor like him, I planned to take three related subjects and one research project 6.100. I then asked for his recommendations on subjects. His reply lifted me to the air:

For you, I especially recommend Robert Berwick's 6.863, which luckily will be taught this Spring (see link). He is an excellent lecturer with highly relevant material, some of which is drawn from his recent book with Chomsky (Why Only Us).

If you drop by before registration day, I may have other suggestions.

You will win the lottery.

What do you have in mind for 6.100?

Instead of recommending a subject that would be taught that Spring, he "especially" recommended a subject "for me" that "luckily" would be taught that Spring.


Instead of sending me a link to the list of recommended classes on 6.034 course website, he invited me to meet him in his office and to tailor suggestions after seeing me.


Instead of telling me that I could take the class because I travelled ten thousand miles for it, he said that I would "win" the lottery because I might have proven myself good for the class.


All this felt very special. So I couldn't wait but confess that I wished to contribute to his vision of "developing a computational theory of intelligence" by working on the Genesis System.


The first step towards that vision was to get an Internet wire for downloading the code from Git. So at the end of my first meeting with him, he walked me to the infrastructure group's office. He watched until the staff found me the right wire and converter. He walked very slowly. He had been standing the whole morning preparing for and giving the How To Speak talk. He could have just given me an instruction or referred me to a graduate student. But he chose to lead me through the building.


All this felt very special.



Episode 2 - Give Students a Satisfying Experience


Title: Please come see me now if you can...

...interrupt if I am with someone.

Days later, I received such an email from him. I went there to be informed that he could not offer 6.803 that term because he would be out of action for a month. He said it with a heavy tone, not for complaining about his medical conditions but for caring about my feelings. He asked if I would decide to go back to Singapore. I said certainly not because I came for him.


Why "come see me now"? Six months later, I learned that he was deciding to give me a private version of 6.803. He then soon concluded that if he was going to go to that much trouble, he might as well let another 20 or so students of the most positive attitude join. That became 6.yyy, the same Human Intelligence Enterprise with a small room of "special" students and two weeks without him.


PS: He called the subject 6.yyy because the original subject had been called 6.xxx, which was called 6.xxx because he believed he could not remember 6.803. But he remembered all the students in 6.034 (Intro to AI) by their names each year. So who is actually having problems remembering the name of a subject? I guess it is us. To honor this fashion, I started introducing myself to other people as Yang or Z, instead of Zhutian.


The next day, the students registered for 6.803 were informed through email that the subject was cancelled. I imagine that most teachers in this situation would just say that their medical conditions prevented them from giving the class, but Prof Winston was feeling sorry for something else:

I deeply regret that I am unable to offer 6.803/6.833 this Spring. Unfortunately, I will be out of action for several weeks in March, and I have determined that there is no way to fill the hole in a manner that I think would produce a satisfying student experience of the sort provided in past years...


Students who were truly interested in research on story-understanding systems signed up for 6.yyy. We sat in a small room with him sitting in the front. We read one paper and wrote a one-page communication assignment before each class. Each 1.5 hour class would be 1/3 communication lesson, 1/3 stories about the author, and 1/3 our opinions on the paper. To give each of us an equal chance to speak, he drew from cards of our faces to decide who would answer his next question.


On 14 Feb, Prof Winston announced that he would be out of action until 5 March. He told us that amazing speakers would come to discuss important topics and he felt sad about missing the talks. So he asked for our help in summarizing the talks into broken glass diagrams (similar to mind maps). He needed my help? Wow. I felt motivated and in charge, barely noticing what he would be really feeling in the next few weeks.


Prof Winston thought from our perspective and communicated through our perspective. Because he took all that trouble to be so considerate, I felt that he cared about his students and he cared about me.



Episode 3 - Answers, Advice, and Action Items


Switching my role from a remote student who watches his lectures to a mentee who learns from interactions with him, I was able to experience how he helped students. And most of his help comes in the AAAI format----Answers, Advice, and Action Items.


Over the year, he told me several rules about communicating with him:


Rule 1: Do not be afraid to ask questions and give suggestions.

How are you going to learn anything if you are afraid to make suggestions ... Do not stop make observations. I am not god.


Rule 2: Do not waste time by not asking questions.

If I can answer a question in a minute, do not wait around to talk to somebody else and certainly do not blow a day trying to figure it out yourself


Rule 3: Ask one question in each email, so he wouldn't delay responding because he doesn't have answer to one of the questions.


Rule 4: Do not be afraid of asking too many questions.

If there are too many, I will say no.


When Rule 4 conflicted with Rule 3, he would respond me first and follow up in future emails:

3) ... Let me think about it, along with Question A.


He had been advising students since 1972 and everyone whom I talked to after his passing said they valued his mentorship. What made him so admirable? I can only gain a little glimpse of his capacities by reverse-engineering the ways in which he crafted his advice for me:

I recommend against trying to ...
I worry about the first paragraph because ...
Ok, but note that ... otherwise agree.
Maybe a bigger part is learning ...
Marr would accuse you of putting the mechanism before the problem ...
I think a good warm-up project would be ...
If you find yourself with nothing to do, read ...
It would be instructive to go through ...
First reaction is that ... would be better.
Perhaps mobile robot could ...

In research matters, I couldn't recall a single case that he imposed his opinions on me. He made it more like discussing with an intelligent friend. He was able to change my mind without saying "not" and "don't".


If some step was really necessary, he would usually put it as:

Be sure to ...


Apart from answering questions and giving advice, he also gave very clear and specific instructions on what I could do or expect:

One good project would be to A) ... B) ... C) ...
Step: Received.
Step: Will respond soon.
Help me understand (/≥▽≤/)
Do you have CSAIL access on your ID card so you can get in early, late, and on weekends? If not, ask me about it on Monday.


PS: One explanation for this action-item habit involves connecting our communication pattern to our thinking pattern in general. At that time, he was developing problem-solving systems that follow steps and adapt to conditions, and I was developing knowledge acquisition systems for learning by reading instructions and learning by talking with experts. So through our email exchanges, we seemed to be generating data for training our systems. But I felt more like he was generating data for training me.


When it comes to giving specific and adaptable action items, here is my favorite:

I suggest:

Project > clean to rebuild system

If that doesn't work, copy new code to a safe place first and then

Right click on Genesis > Replace with > head revision

If that doesn't work, find the bin directory where your operating system is putting compiled genesis files.  Delete everything in bin directory and try again.

If that doesn't work go to bed.

I ended up telling him that I could only go to bed ... Then he helped me to fall asleep easier by replying:

... I know you are going to school, so not a priority.



Episode 4 - Hack Mode


Once I proposed to add a feature to the system that we are developing. He said he would do it when he was in Hack Mode.


And that seemed to happen every other day... What would you expect a 75-year-old famous professor to do during spring break?


29 Mar, Thur, 3:44pm:

... Very promising. Hope you are having a good break. See you Monday.

29 Mar, Thur, 5:36pm:

I have debugged problem with ...

30 Mar, Fri:

The ... code has bugs --- I am working on it now.

31 Mar, Sat:

I am debugging and refining ... I will show you new features on Monday.

3 Apr, Tue:

I have thought of a way to ... I will explain tomorrow.


Imagine you were cracking your mind around a wicked bug on Sunday, 28 Apr, and received the following series of emails from him:



... I am looking into this.


It is a nice day. Go outside. 

... worked great yesterday, so it will take a while to see what's wrong and I am sleepy.


On second thought, wait.... 


Ok, I see what happened...

He asked me to go outside to enjoy the sunshine while he fixed the problem... What can I say. He really loved making his Genesis System. He really meant it when he said "The goal: To develop a computational theory of intelligence within my lifetime." So it felt heroic to get my hands dirty with him together.



Episode 5 - Forgive and Educate


Prof Winston treated mistakes through a calm and conductive way. Once I didn't realize why my mistake was severe, here is what he said:

You are telling yourself the wrong story and missing an important question. Here is what you missed: ...


Once I asked for his advice about a difficult life situation. He made himself available quickly:

... that was a blunder. Before you do anything, Skype.


Once I screwed up the codes of the Genesis System due to carelessness. He gave me quite a lesson:

I have decided on a punishment: When you get back to Cambridge the Genesis group will parade you around MIT wearing a placard around your neck that says "I did not check test cases." You will be dressed in rags and wearing a dunce cap. There will be crowds of students, all shouting insults and throwing garbage at you, especially in building 10 under the great dome. There will be photographers. 

That all was a joke.

So, you need to be more careful, as such breaking could have been a very serious disaster, and as it was, I blew about 2 days debugging. Minimally you must: 1) Let me know when you touch files outside your package. 2) Run the test stories and make sure they all work properly

The next morning, around the time I usually replied to his emails, he called me through Skype:

I call just to make sure that you know it was a joke.

I would never forget the lesson and his fatherly tone that day.



Episode 6 - Care and Attention


At the end of July 2018, I went back to Singapore (12-hour time difference from Boston) to apply my Genesis programs to robotic applications. That period involved me writing bugs in my day and Prof Winston's fixing the bugs in his day. This is a joke. But he did take charge of implementing many features and drafting papers.


That was when Prof Winston realized my troubling sleep schedule:

You looked very tired on Skype. How much sleep are you getting?


Since then, I had received many emails and calls from him that lit up my whole sky:

Send me a note after you wake up with 8 hrs of sleep.
Tell your mother that you are sleeping too late.
I'm thinking it (new group meeting schedule) is in the middle of the night for you (to join through Skype), but you can sleep in on Saturday. Correct?

Will you be able to attend from you residence? I don't want you running around town in the middle of the night.
Remember, do not ever ride a bike at night in Cambridge. We have invested too much in you. I don't like you to get killed.

Now you see, he was not in his usual Advisor Mode.


My mother had been hugely grateful for how he had taken care of me. So I figured a way to introduce her to him: "I passed your words to my mother about my sleeping too late. She wholeheartedly agrees. With domestic and foreign force, we are confident that we are able to get Zhutian on bed by 11 pm. This is to come into effects on 3 Jan, 2019."


His reply soon arrived:

You have 15 minutes remaining to be awake.



Episode 7 - Encourage


I had known Prof Winston for 18 months, and never have I heard him using the same expression to encourage my progress or my idea. It must have taken a beautiful mind to produce the following:

Very nice.
I especially like your ...
Thank you for joining yesterday. I value your comments.
All sounds great.
By the way, this is all terrific.
Very, very interesting. A dimension of ... that had not occurred to me.
Very cool. <-- very, very cool.
This is extremely good stuff.


He nurtured me with powerful words like these. Month after month, I grew into a different person. From being afraid of making a sound during group meetings, I started to share opinions. From being stressed over revising every email at least three times before sending them to him, I started to make jokes. From identifying myself as a student with a certain major, I started seeing myself as a theorist with promising ideas. I started criticizing and welcoming criticism. I started singing songs on my bike ride home.


But one of the most powerful words of encouragement he gave me is not a compliment; it is a promise:

As for the future, as long as you want to do what you want to do now, I will do whatever I can to make it happen.

He did, all the way into his last week when he told me "let's make something impressive and here is the first step", until the future stopped on 19 July 2019.


Except that the future didn't stop on 19 July 2019. As his ideas, writings, videos, stories and words of encouragement remained, he had already done all that I need for my dream to happen.



Am I Having Fun?


Yes, nothing have been more fun in my life than working under Prof Winston's wings, quoting his big ideas every day, and sharing my thoughts with him about almost anything.


Because of the fun, I did not feel that I was working, but living my life to its fullest. Because of the fun, I did not feel defeated when I did not succeed at once----I was just learning and learning is fun.


Unfortunately, I've lost him. I thought I had forever lost that source and sharer of my fun.


But on second thought, let me be the one who creates and encourages fun, just like he did.

I'm so happy to read your story and to know that PHW was able to inspire in you some of the same feelings that he did in me. I can only be happy knowing that there are others that he touched and who he inspired to take on missions of their own.


I had the same thoughts as you did after relentlessly pouring over PHW's 6.034 lectures for the first time: I wanted more. I had never been inspired by anyone to the degree that PHW inspired me. Until the summer of 2014, I had never understood why people had heroes, but once I finished 6.034, I understood, and for the first time in my life, I had a hero: PHW. Unfortunately, I never got to take 6.xxx, but there was enough information on the web to piece together large parts of it, but of course, it's not the same.


What now? It's hard to say--not because I don't know the answer, but because this tragedy has made it hard to think. What I can say is that PHW inspired me: his lectures helped me to piece together a mission, and I will continue forward on that mission. With time, I suspect that I'll be able to say that even though 2019/07/19 was one of the saddest days of my life, I'll remember that it was only sad because PHW was so great: forsan haec olim meminisse iuvabit.


Finally, back to the reason that I started writing this comment.... When you showed your drawing, I thought that I'd share one of mine.

Admittedly, I lack the artistic talent that you have developed, but I found it oddly comforting when I saw your drawing, so I thought that I might share in case there are readers out there who might end up feeling the same way. I didn't share that image with PHW. I made it as a small part of a teaching module that is part of a system targeted at democratizing the powerful ideas in Artificial Intelligence and other areas so that more people can leverage those ideas to make themselves smarter. PHW delivered on his empowerment promise in his first lecture: his course made me smarter. Not only did he deliver, but he delivered it in a way that inspired me to develop and build those ideas into a system that I have been teaching to friends and that I have been refining to eventually share with as many people as possible in the same way that 6.034 was shared with me for free online.


Thank you for sharing your story!

Hi Alex, wow thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me!! PHW is my hero! I never thought another person would use the same word but really, he is that inspiring. Being able to find another soul that can understand my feelings to him, Alex, you made my day!


You mentioned your mission. I am curious. May I know what it is?


This image is sooooo lovely. This is exactly his Near-Miss idea. Have you watched the video where he demonstrated the idea and program in the 1978? It's the second video in Selected Works > Research: https://www.memoriesofpatrickwinston.com/selected-works Look how charming he talked!

@Zhutian Yang

I have not yet seen that video, but I am excited to watch it before I go to bed tonight. I went for a walk after writing my post to clear my head. A very long walk....


I'm happy to speak with you about my mission. I sent you a message on linkedin.

New Posts
  • At the MIT faculty meeting on October 17, 2007, two faculty members, Ken Manning and Patrick Winston, presented a motion for a vote.  The immediate cause of the motion was MIT’s response to one of its students who had appeared at Logan Airport wearing a sweatshirt that sported a circuit board with tiny flashing green lights on an LED display. The student was surrounded by Massachusetts state troopers wielding MP5 sub-machine guns. The student put her hands up. The troopers lowered their guns. The student was charged with possession of a hoax device. MIT issued a public statement describing such behavior as reckless. Ken Manning and Patrick Winston presented this motion: In light of the Star Simpson event, we, the MIT faculty, request that the MIT administration refrain from making public statements that characterize or otherwise interpret—through news office releases, legal agents, or any other means—the behavior and motives of members of the MIT community whose actions are the subject (real or potential) of pending criminal investigation. We offer this resolution to foster mutual trust within the MIT community and to promote due process for all. One of the two authors of the motion, Patrick Winston was recorded in the minutes of the faculty meeting as having “related a personal story of how, when he was an MIT student, members of the MIT community went to significant lengths to support him, and that this contributed to his perception of MIT as an organization that is akin to an extended family.” This is the story that Pat told on the floor of the meeting: My own views were shaped many years ago when I was a 19 or 20 year old undergraduate here at MIT. It was October, and the previous summer I had purchased my first car, a Volkswagen, near the end of its service life. After driving it around Europe a little, I imported it. Then, it occurred to me from time to time that I should think about getting it registered in Massachusetts. But—I was busy. Then one night, or rather early on a Sunday morning, I was detained by the Wellesley police. They were upset because my car’s muffler didn’t amount to much, and they became additionally upset when they discovered my license plates were foreign and expired. I say “detained” but many years later, in the course of a routine security clearance background investigation, I found that I was considered arrested. In any case, I eventually received a summons, and a few days after that, I got a call from Chief Olivieri of the MIT campus police. He asked a few questions, and then indicated he would see me in court, which he did. When my case came up, he asked for and was granted a bench conference with the judge. I don’t know what Chief Olivieri said, but I imagine he said I was a good boy; a good student; not inclined toward reckless behavior; but just a little clueless perhaps, a common characteristic of boys just in from the corn fields of Illinois. In any case, the judge chuckled and dismissed the case. I’ve told that story many times to many people—students, staff, faculty, anyone contemplating a move to MIT. I use it to buttress my claim that MIT has always been as close to an extended family as an organization can be.… What I want is for people everywhere to say that MIT is a place that forgives—when it can; that supports—when it can; and that weeps—when it cannot. I wrote about this event in my MIT memoir, Mens et Mania . I concluded my description this way: I don’t think you can get a better statement of the MIT student-faculty bond unless you sing along to Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” I wrote that almost 10 years ago. Nothing has happened to make me want to change a word of it.
  • From Facebook: Professor Winston was the best teacher and mentor I had at MIT. He introduced so many students to big picture concepts and fields of research, that they will not forget even years after school. His courses didn't just cover technical details of machine intelligence- they gave students new perspectives into the field through discussion of ideas from psychology, biology, philosophy, business, history. And beyond that he had so much communication advice that actually *made sense*. He truly knew how to engage and educate, and he certainly had a lot of vision. He was also an MIT lifer, who understood what MIT is actually all about, and defended student culture on numerous occasions. He will be sorely missed by the whole community, and selfishly I was devastated by this news. I had heard his health was improving, and was looking forward to talking to him about my graduate research (and beyond). I'm not sure I ever properly thanked him for all the help he gave me, but I hope he was well aware how important he was to me, and really all of MIT. RIP PHW From Twitter: I went to talk to PHW a couple years ago bc I was worried about finishing my MEng thesis on time (from another lab). I was nervous to explain I couldn't really do it over the summer because I was doing an analytics internship with the Jaguars. Not sure what reaction to expect But what I definitely didn't expect was for him to get legitimately excited for me. He actually offered that if I wasn't able to finish my original thesis on time he would be my official adviser to sign off on a football analytics paper instead.  He obviously had a lot of amazing ideas and was great at conveying them, but what was really most remarkable was how much he cared about his students, and MIT as a whole. I've been looking to read more stories about him, so thanks for this thread! It was especially crazy how he respected and made time for any students that wanted to chat with him, even if he barely knew them. I remember when I was just one of hundreds in that term's 034, I tried to schedule one of those UA dinners with him We weren't able to make it work with the whole group during the Fall, but he went out of his way to take us to dinner over IAP. I originally suggested the Friendly Toast because I wasn't sure what the group would be okay with now that it wasn't UA funded. So Winston replied "If you really like the Friendly Toast that's fine, but if this is just about the money please pick somewhere more upscale, I can cover the dinner with discretionary funds".  I always enjoyed those UA dinners, but I think he was the only prof that went out of his way to actually treat the students. Another group I know he basically ordered dessert for all of them. Anyway, those are a few little things I really appreciated about PHW. He had a big impact on my career too I think, but everyone is sharing stories related to his teachings and work, so wanted to share something that maybe wouldn't be redundant!
  • "This professor must have an inner program embedded in his brain, with a system update running incessantly," this is what I think of Prof Winston. Earlier this year, I flew from Hong Kong to Cambridge, and, of course, visited Prof Winston. And, another of course, he was practicing another system update on himself. "You know, my wife says that I don't smile much . Do you think so? Ok, I am going to smile more." That was a really cute smile. It is hard to describe, just like a baby wobbling to walk. Really cute. But what I see through his smile is his kindness to students and never-stopped learning. Our conversation was about my future research path, and Prof Winston recommended lots of professors and constructive suggestions. It was my most memorable conversation with him, not only because his advice was very helpful for a new graduate, but also because in this conversation I saw so many cute smiles. At the end of our conversation, I looked at my whole page of notes and showed my gratitude to Prof Winston. He gave me a big hug and asked, "So, how was my smile?"

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Alex Balaiban contributed 12 months of submission functionality on this website