William elsewhere: planet3.0

In Memoriam, John McCarthy.

Eeee, those were the days.

[Late update: I’ve just gone through and re-read that P3 post. To anyone who knows my style and mt’s, its pretty obvious who wrote which bits. But anyway, I’ve found my original email so this was my version:

An appreciation of John McCarthy from sci.environment

Recently two major figures from computing have died: Dennis Ritchie (C) and John McCarthy (LISP). As far as I know, DR had nothing special to do with the environment, but John McCarthy was a denizen of the usenet group sci.environment in the days when usenet was the premier online discussion forum; the days before blogs (before the web even) and the days before the signal to noise ratio in sci.environment itself collapsed and everyone left (or at least, I did. I may not have been the last out). All the old fogeys were there, including mt.

JMC was a technological optimist. At times this could become indistinguishable from a belief in magic. But more often he had valuable things to say, and would temper the overenthusiastic but underoptimistic Green Folk. He was well known for a couple of his .sigs (these and others are available from his sayings), which form a neat summary of his style:

During the second millenium, the Earthmen complained a lot

and more importantly

He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense

The first, of course, expresses his techno-optimism. But (since planet3.0 is at least in part about presenting ideas in a way that they can be accepted) it can also be read as a criticism of people whose apparent reaction to almost any change is negative. The US is famous for its “yes we can” attitude, which is a powerful force. In contrast, “um, no, don’t like the sound of that” can be very weak. But more often he used the second; and from what my fallible memory calls forth, his ability to puncture nonsensical arguments with trivial arithmetic was his most notable contribution.

A good example is a discussion of shipping costs:

Someone speculated that increasing oil prices might force countries that import grain to grow their own because of the cost of transportation… About 1600 tonne-miles/gal for a large dry bulker carrying grain.

Now we can do some arithmetic using the following facts.

There are 37 bushels of wheat per tonne.
There are 42 gallons of oil in a barrel.
Oil costs $12 per barrel at present.

Wheat costs something like $2.00 per bushel at present, but that’s an exceptionally low price because of bumper crops.
Sometimes it’s $4.00 per bushel. I’m not sure I have those prices right, so someone may want to correct me.

Imagine an average journey of 5,000 miles.

The arithmetic gives us

transportation cost per bushel =

(/ (* 5000 12.0 ) (* 37.0 42 1600)) =>0.02413127413127413,

i.e. the fuel cost to transport a bushel of wheat 5,000 miles is $.024.

Multiplying fuel cost by 100 would add a substantial cost to shipping wheat, but it would destroy the rest of the economy.

Conclusion: The cost of shipping grain long distances won’t force countries to be independent in food.

That was written in 1999. Oil is now ten times that price, and grain about three times the price, so the argument is still valid. Perhaps more to the point, it is still meaningul and you can check it yourself.

JMC was clever, but there are hints of the arrogance, and disinterest in the actual science, which swirl around folk such as Muller. An example begins with JMC asking “Do you think humanity can or should prevent the next ice age?” This is not a scientific question; what JMC is fishing for is either “Yes we should” (in which case he will say “Aha! You approve of human intervention”) or “No we should not” (in which case he will say “Aha! You want to kill millions”) or “I don’t know” (in which case he will say “Aha! You’re useless”). Nonetheless, JMC gets a scientific answer we already have. The point being, of course, that we have already emitted sufficient GHGs to overwhelm the natural Milankovitch forcing. We could perhaps have had an interesting discussion around that topic. But that was not at all what he wanted so he pushed for more, but was disappointed.

There is much much more in the treasure trove of old sci.env posts. Alas, quite apart from the unrestricted posting which eventually killed usenet, the problem was that it was fundamentally a discussion forum, and didn’t allow a corpus of ideas to be built up. So this interesting discussion of “lawyers science” lies forever lost. If only it were not just as relevant today. But since this is about JMC, I should point you to his reply.

People mourn when a person dies, but no-one mourns the billions of intestinal bacteria that his death dooms. Speciesism, I calls it.


* It turns out to be possible to get a posting history for JMC out of