jmc rip

You may have heard that John McCarthy died yesterday at 84. As the inventor of Lisp, the world's second-oldest programming language, and coiner of the phrase "artificial intelligence", it's fair to say that (aside from Turing) there's nobody whose contributions to computer science have had a bigger impact on my life.

Today would be a good day for you to read his 1960 paper, Recursive Functions of Symbolic Expressions and Their Computation by Machine.

I met him once. It was 1992, shortly after the first public release of Lucid Emacs, and rpg came into my office and said, "McCarthy's trying to use lemacs, and his dot-emacs file isn't working. You need to go over to Stanford and fix it for him."

Needless to say, I got a move on.

So I sat at his desk in his completely normal university office, debugged some emacs-lisp code for him, and tried not to think about how weird that was.

He was a nice guy.

Tags: , , , ,

10 Responses:

  1. ... what a cliffhanger!

    What was in his dot-file?! What was the problem?!

  2. @gaak99 says:

    Surely he had problems with his XEmacs vs GNU Emacs conditional code (as we all did during that epic schism).

    I remember alot of code like this in my .emacs:
    (cond ((and running-xemacs (running-emacs-version-or-newer 19 6))

    Cool though you realized the op and actually went across town/valley to handle in person. Needless to say not many got that high level of support.

  3. TJIC says:

    Reading paper (and thus remedying huge hole) now - thanks for the pointer.

  4. Alex B says:

    I like to think that the majority of legendary computer engineers are soft-spoken, nice guys.

    My first job out of college was a PC support tech at GTE Internetworking, which at the time included BBN Technologies. So one day I found myself fixing Ray Tomlinson's Eudora installation. Fixing the email of the guy who invented email was sort of surreal. He was a nice guy.

  5. Tom says:

    he's closed his final parenthesis... RIP

  6. DFB says:

    I'm sad, but on the other hand, he wanted to build 4,000+ new nuclear reactors in the US, and would hassle anyone (including junior faculty!) who disagreed, long after the National Academies had made it clear that there's more wind than anyone will be able to use, at a fifth or less the cost.

    • grey says:

      Well, who wants to talk about dead guys who actually did technical things to forward computing? The media is too busy praising the marketing guy who near as I can tell shifted from wearing a suit to turtlenecks as his big contribution (seriously, Jobs' keynotes for NeXT were basically identical to his Apple keynotes).

      I wonder if Woz will return... bring back the wizard if he can get off his segway polo teams and dancing with stars shindigs. :(

  7. 205guy says:

    Gaaa, sorry for messing up the closing tag. Probably used the wrong slash.