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Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

When I showed up in 1961, there had been a tuition riot the year before. Tuition had gone from $1,200 to $1,400, a hearty 16% rise. My house bill at ΦΔΘ was $110/month. So the total, rounding up, was, $2,500. It was a lot of money, especially for my family, which was too well off for me to qualify for financial aid, but not well enough off to handle the $2,500 without considerable sacrifice.

Now tuition, room, board, and fees have just topped $50,000, but of course you have to adjust for inflation, perhaps by using the handy inflation calculator provided by the US Department of Labor. With that adjustment, tuition, room, and board ought to be about $18,000.

So relative to the rest of the economy, MIT’s educational productivity has lagged behind by a factor of about 2.75 over the past 50 years.

I’m not really surprised. The last great technical contribution to education was the development of fast, cheap copying machines and before that the invention of the printing press in 1440. I don’t count computers, because I think that, for the most part, they just make us stupid. Education remains labor intensive out of proportion to just about everything else.

Also, there is the matter of growing administration. A while ago, the sometimes acerbic Philip Greenspun ’82, SM 93, PhD 99 poked around and found that in 1969, MIT employed 962 faculty and 622 administrators. During the past twenty years, the faculty has been stable at about 1,000, an insignificant 4% more than the 1969 number, while administration has grown from about 1,000 to about 1,800, almost three times the 1969 number and a presumably larger multiple of the 1961 number. Interestingly, in 1961, administrators had no productivity-multiplying computers; the only computer was the IBM 7090, in building 26, with impressive tape drives, shown off behind large glass windows along the hallway.

Like most MIT people, I like to look at the numbers. To graduate in four years, you have to take eight subjects a year. My fall subject has two lectures, two recitations, and one tutorial in each of fourteen weeks. Subtracting out holidays, quizzes, and short weeks, that leaves about 60 units of instruction. $50,000 / 8 / 60 ≅ $100, which is about the price of an excellent ticket for a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If I flatter myself and suppose that my lectures are twice as valuable as the other forms of contact, and note that they last 50 minutes, not 60, then a little algebra says they cost each student about $175 per hour.  The best tickets at the Metropolitan Opera and good tickets at Rolling Stones Concerts cost about that per hour.

That’s why I think I’m obligated to practice my lectures more than ever. Opera singers and the Stones practice a lot for their expensive performances, so I figure I should, too.

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

When our CSAIL laboratory moved into the Stata Center, I discovered my assigned office had a wall tilted back at 7½°. That tilt presented a problem; the bookcase I brought along from our old digs in Tech Square looked really ugly and small.

My engineering gene started to manifest itself. Engineers build stuff to solve problems, so I built a slanted bookcase, 14′ 5¾” along the hypotenuse.

I made it from ¾” cherry veneer plywood, with solid cherry facings, and finished it with several applications of Watco Danish oil. The shelves are set on adjustable ¼” steel pins. I secured it with two bolts in the floor, because I think the only possible failure mode would be slipping out from the wall at the bottom.

Everyone wonders how I get the books from the top. The answer is that I use the local stepladder, but alas, the top two shelves are beyond its reach. So, there it is: another problem. One of these days I’ll solve it by building a custom library ladder.

Even when I write or give a talk, I think of myself as solving a problem by building something.  First, I decide what the problem is, then I draw up a a specification for what I want to write or say, next I develop a plan and bring the raw materials together, and finally I assemble, all the while attending to esthetics as well as function.  Writing and speaking became a lot easier when I started thinking that way.

Of course, building stuff is the bedrock of MIT, our raison d’être. MIT faculty, staff, students, and graduates build everything from biological cells to cities.

Patrick Henry Winston 65, SM 67, PhD 70

Earthquake destruction in Haiti.

Damage in Haiti.

I experienced an earthquake once, high up in a Tokyo hotel. It scared me—really, really scared me—but the next morning, when I expected everyone to be talking about the earthquake, I heard not a word. Frightening as it was to me, the magnitude was too small be a topic worth raising.

So I should have thought more about the horror of Tuesday, 12 January 2010, when a real earthquake, magnitude 7.0, hit near Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Then, less than two months later, 27 February 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake hit near Concepcion, Chile,

It becomes terrifyingly real when you realize you have colleagues and students from those places, and you learn you can’t be from there without having lost somebody.

My good friend and colleague, Michel DeGraff is from Haiti. My good friend and student, Daniel Rosenberg, is from Chile. So I sent a little money to MIT sites set up for Haitian and Chilean donations. I sent small amounts, but I know about superposition, and I know a lot of small amounts can make a big pile.

Michel has just returned from Haiti. He has several suggestions for donations. Daniel suggests you give via a site set up by MIT and Harvard students that takes you to site set up by MIT for helping Chile.

Or ask one of your friends where they think your donation can do the most good.


Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

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 homepage, click on Playlist, and run the first of the Imma Be Rocking That videos.

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.


Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Dramashop just performed R.U.R, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which helps us understand what it will be like when the robots take over, and pretty much wipe out us humans, which I suppose serves us right, inasmuch as we have proved so proficient at wiping out other species and each other.

One night, I was asked to comment on the play afterward, because AI is my field. It took quite a while to think up three minutes of content, because it had to build to a reasonably good joke at the end.

Rossum’s robots are smart and look like people, which is convenient, because they are played by human actors.

The play invites speculation on whether we humans could ever build smart robots that look like people. My answer is yes, because arguments to the contrary mostly boil down to the unthinkability fallacy: “I cannot think how that could be done; therefore, it can’t be done.” Also, the biologists are doing pretty well on their side of the table, what with artificial organs and the like, and we computationally oriented types are making progress, too.

Of course, when we get close to really building such creatures, we better do a lot of simulation, because, as the play teaches, the unintended consequences of a mistake could be horrible beyond description.

In a fit of neosolipsism, it occurred to me that I and my environment might be just a simulation experiment, run by some cautious computer scientist in the sky, with a particularly twisted mind, trying out a few ideas before going physical. I don’t know how I could ever tell. That Pascal idea—I think, therefore I am—doesn’t seem to help.

If I am a simulation, let the record show that I resent it. And judging by the stuff I read in the papers, the experiment doesn’t seem to be going too well.

Such is the wild speculation encouraged by an MIT-filled audience, a late night, and a superbly done play.

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

It must have been about 30 years ago, because Robert Sjoberg, SM ’81, made me do it.

We were sitting in my office, whining about somebody’s horrible lectures, when he said, “You should do an IAP class on how to speak.” “No,” I said, “I’ve never given a lecture I rate at better than a B+; I’d be depressed for a month afterward; it would take a week to prepare; and, besides, nobody would come.”

“I’ll come, he said.”

Actually, that first edition of How to Speak drew about 100. This past week about 250 showed up. It’s a little hard to say exactly because 6-120 officially seats 150 and perhaps another 100 sat on the stairs and floor or stood in the back or watched from the hall.

Some elements of the talk were the same that Robert heard that first year. Start with an empowerment promise, something everyone will be able to do at the end that they are not able to do at the beginning. Finish with a reminder that you have delivered on your promise. Avoid thanking the audience, because that suggests insecurity, but exit with a joke, if you can, because that way people will think they had fun the entire time.

There is much more now, of course, because I keep learning new things. I’ve added techniques for passing oral exams, delivering successful job-interview talks, and ensuring that ideas become as famous as they ought to be.

Some say How to Speak has become an MIT tradition. I think of it as an exemplar of the spirit of IAP: people in the MIT community taking care of their own and having fun doing it.

It is highly nonlinear, of course. I imagine that everyone in the audience is empowered by at least one idea, and that may be the idea that improves a talk that lands a job that enables a high-impact career.

By now, more than 5000 people have heard How to Speak. Pretty good return on the 10 minutes it took Robert to talk me into doing it.

Editor’s Note: You can hear a version of Prof. Winston’s talk (recorded by Harvard).

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

The end-of-term crunch has begun, with finals just a week away. The students are tired and fall asleep easily. I, like other faculty, am wondering how I will ever get a final exam prepared.

It was in this season, when my daughter was an MIT freshman, that I asked her how things were going. “Ok,” she grunted.

She graduated from Concord Academy, a private high school on the difficult end of the spectrum—so difficult that when she was there, graduated students coming back to visit would always tell the current students not to worry about college. It will be no big deal, they would say, no harder and probably easier than Concord Academy.

So, trying to provoke my daugher into supplying some details about how things were going, I asked her if what those Concord Academy graduates predicted was really true—transitioning to MIT was no big deal. “No, Daddy” she said, “that’s only true for ordinary schools—like Harvard and Yale.”

Vive la différence!

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Every once in a while, a student group invites me to a free dinner, which pleases me, not only because faculty salaries were frozen last year, but also because I enjoy getting to know students in an informal setting.

This past week, I went to the Hillel Faculty Night Dinner, where the students have a tradition of asking the faculty attending to introduce themselves and answer a surprise question, such as, “What is your favorite building on campus?” This time, it was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I didn’t have a good answer to that question, so I decided to use a trick I learned in humanities classes. I ignored the question asked and answered another one, “What is the strangest incident you have experienced involving a Jewish student?”

“Without a doubt, that would be the amazing case of Louis Lamon,” I said, responding to my own question.

Louis Lamon* was one of my all-time favorite teaching assistants in 6.034, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. One year, when Louis was a teaching assistant, our final examination was on a Monday morning, so on Monday afternoon the staff, about eight or ten of us, were sitting at a big table working away through a stack of 250 examinations. We were just getting started at the time the conflict exam was scheduled over in a distant classroom. We decided to take turns proctoring. I took the first turn.

When I returned from proctoring, I was feeling pretty goofy, it being the end of the term, so I decided to hack the staff.

“Wow, I just had my first experience with quiz rage,” I said as I sat down at the grading table.

“What’s that?” asked Louis.

“It’s a little like road rage, I guess. A student seemed to be having trouble with the exam, and then, about 20 minutes in, he started cursing and swearing loudly. I couldn’t calm him down. I finally had to call the campus police and have him taken away. They told me it happens once or twice each semester.”

“Who was it?” said Louis.

I thought it would add realism to describe one of Louis’s students, an Israeli named Ben Brotsky*, who happened to be taking the conflict exam. “I don’t know,” I pretended, but some of the cursing and swearing was in a language unfamiliar to me, maybe Hebrew.”

“You know,” said Louis. “I think it might be one of mine, is he [physical description]?”

“Yes,” I said “That’s what he looks like.”

Then, a few minutes later, Louis said, “He once told me a scud landed a few doors from where he lived in Israel; maybe it is some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

“Yes, Louis,” I replied, “Maybe it’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.”

Then, it came time for Louis to go off to the conflict-exam room for the final shift. About half way through his shift, I decided I should go and make sure he was ok with the hack and not too sore about getting snookered. But, when I arrived, he grabbed my arm and whispered into my ear, “He’s back.”

“Oh my god,” I said, improvising rapidly. “Louis, don’t do anything to upset him. I talked to his advisor, and he has a history of violence. He was a commando in the Israeli army. He could kill you in seconds with a wire…like that power cord attached to his laptop.”

“Ok,” said Louis. “I’ll be careful.”

A little while later, Louis returned to the room where we were all grading, looking highly upset, and said, “I confronted Ben after the exam.”

“Oh, oh,” I thought to myself, “now I’m in trouble.”

So, I started to explain, “Listen, Louis…,” but he interrupted me. “We’ve got to do something,” said Louis with emphasis. “The guy is so psychotic, he didn’t remember a thing about the incident.”


DeRon BrownProfessor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

I went to the last football game of the season last night. I went because it wasn’t just any last football game, it was DeRon Brown’s last football game. I was drawn to it as if it were the last solar eclipse of the century.

Now priorities are such that our football team is a true Division III team, and the players play for the love of the game. So when one of our players reaches DeRon’s level—rushing for 170 yards per game, attracting national attention—I just have to go see him play.

I had taught DeRon Artificial Intelligence in 6.034 when he was a junior. As soon as I saw him, I went to the web for a look at the MIT football roster, and as I expected, there he was, along with the emerging story of his amazing record. DeRon showed up regularly in class, looked interested, and did well.

So, I had to go, and I dragged my daugther, Sarah, also a senior, along on the trip to Endicott College. We quickly spotted DeRon’s mom, Kim, and dad, Chris. Kim wore a jacket with a big number 20, her son’s number; Chris looked just like his son. They had driven seven hours or so from their home in the small town of Galax, Virginia.

Alas, DeRon got a mild concussion early in the game, so it wasn’t a night for his usual spectacular performance. But he was fun to watch anyway. He looked fast even when he was just standing still on the sidelines.

After the game, I ran into David Nackoul, a standout lineman who graduated with a course VI degree a year ago. I asked him why DeRon was so good. He explained that DeRon is unlike other backs who, when they get in trouble, run sideways, run backwards, or start stutter stepping. “When DeRon makes a cut,” he said, “he always keeps moving forward.”

What a motto that would make! Always moving forward. I must find someone who can translate that into Latin for me.

greenlogoProfessor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

The day was full of the accoutrements of a Presidential visit—cameras, barricades, fresh paint, devotees, police, people on the rooftops with binoculars and guns, and somber-looking men whose darting eyes constantly scanned the crowd.

It was a good-feeling type of day because President Obama knows something about motivation. He said he values us, he values our work, and he knows our work makes a difference. Speaking of MIT in particular, and saluting entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers, and engineers in general, he also said, “The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy.” It’s nice, and refreshing, to know that the President of the United States knows that.

It all took me back to another speech, Susan Hockfield’s inaugural address, four years ago. She identified the two major interdisciplinary themes she would promote as President of MIT: engineering + biology + brain and cognitive science was one; energy and the environment was the other. Out of the energy and the environment theme emerged MIT’s Energy Initiative, aka MITEI, and that is what drew the other President to use MIT as the venue for his call-to-arms speech.

Now more often that not here at MIT, I stand with the loyal opposition on matters of policy, and sometimes I get quite cranky about what I take to be a shift toward a more corporate look and feel. But when our current President is a past president, and people ask what she accomplished, if the answer is that she started the MIT Energy Initiative, which saved the planet, not to mention the economy, then I think she will have left behind a pretty good legacy.

It’s the nature of big jobs. The superposition principle does not apply. You don’t sum up all the things people do, you honor the best thing or condemn the worst thing. In this case, the best thing has big potential.