John McCarthy has died. Sadly I was expecting this, I was told that McCarthy was still teaching courses in 2008 by someone in Stanford’s computer science department, but he was in obvious bad health. One of the major downsides of the incredible information flow in the internet age is that you often hear through the grapevine that eminent so-and-so is ill, and have to prepare yourself years ahead for the inevitable. We all die, but it seems starker in the case of those individuals who have grasped upon a fragment of the sort of immortality given to Gilgamesh.
In the early to mid-2000s I had some conversations and arguments with McCarthy about the history of Islam and the politics of the Middle East (in hindsight I knew a lot more about the former than I did the latter). He followed Gene Expression now and then in the course of his meanderings around the web. Initially I did not make the connection that this was the John McCarthy, which was especially ironic in that I was playing at learning Lisp at that moment! Outside of his domains of almost godlike achievement I have to say that McCarthy was a relatively no-nonsense down to earth person from what little I could gather. He was curious about what he didn’t know, and if you weren’t aware that he was one of the most accomplished computer scientists in the world he didn’t seem too keen on cluing you in. My own overall impression was that he was a deep pragmatist and skeptic.