Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Say some good about the dead

John McCarthy of LISP fame died Sunday. Those of us who disputed (in the best sense of the word) with him on sci.environment will pause and doff our caps.

John, of course, is famous for writing LISP, but on USENET he was one of the original cornucopians, predicting that there was enough of everything because zero cost energy would be available.


dhogaza said...

"but on USENET he was one of the original cornucopians, predicting that there was enough of everything because zero cost energy would be available."

Thank you for pointing this out, because back in the later 80s and through much of the 90s I argued incessantly with him regarding species endangerment/extinction issues, originally centered around old growth logging in the PNW (he knew nothing about population ecology, but assumed he knew more than those scientists doing the work, a typical denialist stance).

Ironically, one of his daughters was/is a biologist, and at one point he e-mailed me privately to tell me that his daughter said that I was right and he was wrong.

Yet he never would post such information in public.

And he attempted to buy some of my nature photography as a gesture of goodwill, but since he insisted he wouldn't make such a gesture publicly, I refused.

So I think he understood that he stood on weak ground scientifically in his heartfelt defense of certain political/economic policies.

Much like I think we see certain scientific denialists of global warming: they understand that if they accept science, there's no rational support for their political beliefs, so they reject science in order to prevent their heads from exploding.

sylas said...

I also disputed with Professor McCarthy, many years ago when I was but a lad working towards my PhD. At the time, I was involved with the "Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility"; and opposition to the "Strategic Defense Initiative". I was living (for 18 months) near Stanford Uni, working at the AI lab of the Stanford Research Institute. It was the Reagan years, and I was also active in vocal opposition to the USA policy in Nicaragua. Needless to say, this all put me and Professor McCarthy in stark opposition.

And yet, and yet. It was Professor McCarthy who defended me when I caused a brief ruckus by speaking up on such things at a big AI conference. It was all characteristic of the man. He was consistently civil and courteous, in my experience; and that made a refreshing change from the norm.

I doff my cap and salute without reservation to an honorable opponent in the social and political spheres; and an inspiration in the mathematical and computation spheres.

LISP was decades ahead of its time, IMHO. As a special tribute, I close this comment with a LISP program addressing the Turing test in natural language; given space constraints I can only give you the tail end of the program.


willard said...

I never disputed with McCarthy, although I disputed his ideas on AI, which were as heroic as his ideas about energy.

I got to understand that heroic thinkers do not care much about their ideas not corresponding to reality. They'll tell you otherwise, but don't listen to them.

That they follow their heroic path makes reality converge with science-fiction. So no harm was done, as would perhaps determine the Yi-Ching.

At least, we do agree that the Réti study is beautiful:


PS: Capcha is prize, an omen.

Jeffrey Davis said...

My forum for meeting McCarthy was rec.arts.books, a few years before the WWW was developed.

He was right in our (very few) disputes, and I was wrong and callow.

Nick Barnes said...

Besides Lisp, which has paid my rent for the last few years, John McCarthy invented garbage collection, which paid my rent throughout the 1990s and which we all use every day.

Russell said...

John was the finest kind of cornucopian.

One whose abundance of mind ran over to the benefit of his contemporaries and posterity alike.

Chris_Winter said...

I only interacted with Dr. McCarthy indirectly and briefly, on USENET years ago. But I think this tribute will be interesting.

Requiem for John McCarthy

Also it's nice to know that Dr. Dobbs' Journal is still around in some form — even as a slow web site.

David B. Benson said...

In 1961 Barry Gordon and I went up to Stanford for some reason which completely escapes me now. While there we were admiring the computerized arcade games, maybe just a point-and-shoot in 2-d space game. John happened by and stopped to inquire who we were. [After reading his obit I have a better understanding of his response.] Anyway, he very kindly took us two CalTech undergraduates around to see the computer sights at the computer sites.

I still recall this. It doesn't accord with his reputation for 'focus' but does for gracefullness.