Message from discussion Joseph Weizenbaum RIP
NNTP-Posting-Date: Sun, 09 Mar 2008 12:05:53 -0500
Subject: Re: Joseph Weizenbaum RIP
From: Kent M Pitman <pit...@nhplace.com>
Organization: My ISP can pay me if they want an ad here.
User-Agent: Gnus/5.09 (Gnus v5.9.0) Emacs/21.3
Date: 09 Mar 2008 13:05:54 -0400
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=us-ascii
X-Abuse-and-DMCA-Info: Please be sure to forward a copy of ALL headers
X-Abuse-and-DMCA-Info: Otherwise we will be unable to process your complaint properly
"Steven M. Haflich" <s...@alum.mit.edu> writes:
> Unless I missed it there has been no notice of the passing of Joseph
> Weizenbaum on this list.
Thanks for the notice. I, at least, had not known.
As someone who is not religious (in the formal sense that most people
intend that term), my personal notion of an afterlife is to have
passed on sufficient knowledge, information, and wisdom to others that
there is a personal mark left for having been present on the Earth in
the first place. He certainly did leave a mark, and so his place in
at least one afterlife (us here now) is assured.
I had him for an instructor in my first Lisp course. He was an
inspiring and entertaining teacher. I never got to know him
personally, although the subtle effects of his teachings had an
influence on a number of things I did later, including my appreciation
for the expressive power of symbolic notation--something that comes up
in Lisp in a number of situations, but was always most elegantly
visible to me in his ELIZA program. The program is something many
people have seen, or if not, they should; my discussion on
comp.lang.lisp of what I personally thought was striking about it is
Also, just as Fermat inspired a great deal of work having nothing to
do with his conjecture, just because people beat their heads against a
hard problem and then went on to other things they could do with all
they had learned in their futile quest, Joe inspired me (and surely
others similarly) to write my own "doctor" program that did ever more
elaborate things with pattern matching on input, dialog-paradigm
models of human/computer understanding, writing transformational
grammars, etc. A great deal of how that played out, and how I
conceived the computer, can be traced back to the very compelling
style of the original ELIZA program.
His attempts at socially linking issues of philosophy and conscience
with computers was also an important and lasting influence. My
present home office is a bit cramped for space and has only a couple
dozen books out for easy access, serving more as a cache than a
library. As I was writing this, I noted that his 1976 book,
Computer Power and Human Reason, happens to be one of those books
I'd recently gotten out to review.
Reproduced here is my favorite personal story about him, originally a
footnote of a longer post, at
| Subject: Macros (was Re: Noob Wonders: Lisp-1 vs. Lisp-2
| By the way, shifting topic for a moment somewhat:
| The first course I took at MIT where Lisp was taught was 6.030, I
| believe, and I think I took it in the spring of 1977, almost exactly
| 30 years ago. The Lisp part was taught by Joe Weizenbaum (of ELIZA
| fame). I recall a story he told us once about the importance of
| always balancing our parens. He took on a mischievous tone at one
| point and said something vaguely to the effect of (this was now
| almost exactly 30 years ago, in Spring 1977, and this is from
| memory, so I might not have the exact words still, but hopefully
| this is close in nature): ``Sometimes, when I want to have a little
| fun with someone, I'll sneak into their office and write a stray
| open parenthesis somewhere on their blackboard. [And he made a
| little chalk mark to show us.] And then all day, I imagine they'll
| wander around feeling like something is just a little off. Then,
| later, I'll sneak back in and close that parenthesis. [He made
| another chalk mark.] And then the world will be back in balance,
| and they may never know why.'' And he smiled the kind of delighted
| smile of someone who understood the power of parentheses to make or
| break one's day. The remark, or its essential nature at least,
| really stuck with me. And I often think on it and smile.
| I noticed you missed a closing parenthesis in the subject line. And
| so I was feeling like something was just a little off.
| :) <-- Balance restored. I hope you don't mind.
| I feel better now.
[And no, he didn't use smileys. Those came about 5 years later than the
above story, and were due to Scott Fahlman.]
If you pardon me, I'm going to end this message with a hanging open
paren, in memory of Joe, and to formally note that things are just a
little off today, as I learn of his passing.