RIP Jerry Pournelle, 1933-2017

The great Jerry Pournelle, political scientist, technological visionary, prolific science fiction writer (often in collaboration with Larry Niven), and computing pioneer all in one, just passed away after a brief respiratory illness. He had appeared at DragonCon only days earlier.

I’ve been following Chaos Manor on an off since it was first a print column in BYTE magazine, back in the Early Tertiary era of computing. The online version has a serious claim to being the world’s oldest blog.
Novels like “Fallen Angels” (with Niven & Flynn) or “The Mote in G-d’s Eye” (with Niven) would have made the reputation of a lesser man. But aside from being a prolific science fiction writer, he was also a compelling thinker and technological visionary. Even with half his brain zapped by radiation treatments, he could still out-think most soi-disant “intellectuals”. Pournelle suffered no fools intellectually, but by all accounts was a generous and solicitous human being in private.
Here is a taste of Jerry Pournelle in his own words. (He was, by the way, apparently the first writer to write a published novel entirely on a [then primitive and monstrously expensive] personal computer.)

HOW TO GET MY JOB

The question I get most often, both in mail and when I speak, is, “How do I get your job?” Usually it’s done a bit more politely, but sometimes it’s asked just that way. It’s generally phrased differently by computer audiences than by science fiction audiences, but both really want to know the same thing: how do you become an author?

I always give the same answer: it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

To be an author, you must first be a writer; and while it’s easy to be an author, being a writer is hard work. Surprisingly, it may be only hard work; that is, while some people certainly have more talent for writing than others, everyone has some. The good news is that nearly anyone who wants to badly enough can make some kind of living at writing. The bad news is that wanting to badly enough means being willing to devote the time and work necessary to learn the trade.

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

The late Randall Garrett, one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, used to have a number of rules, many of them scatological. One of them was that no professional writer ever got anything from formal courses in writing. I think he was wrong, in the sense that a good formal introduction to the rules of grammar and spelling can be extremely useful; but he had a point, which is that there aren’t any secrets to be learned from creative-writing courses. If the only way you can force yourself to write that million words of your best work is to take a class in creative writing or attend a writers’ workshop, by all means do it; but do it understanding that the good comes from the writing you do, not from the criticism or theory or technique taught in the class.

May his memory be blessed. The science fiction field and the blogosphere are truly a poorer place without him.

 

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On Google and doublethink

The new Google slogan has been unveiled today (hat tip: Marina F.):

wip-google

For those who have been living under a rock: Google fired an employee for having the temerity to write a memo [draft archived here][full text here via Mark Perry at AEI] questioning the “diversity” (what I call “fauxversity”) and “affirmative action” (i.e., reverse discrimination) policies of the company. Said employee had earlier filed a labor grievance and is taking legal action. Now quite interestingly, here is an article in which four actual experts discuss the science underlying the memo, and basically find it unexceptional even though they do not all agree with the author on its implications. One of them, an evolutionary psychology professor at U. of New Mexico, has the money quote:

Here, I just want to take a step back from the memo controversy, to highlight a paradox at the heart of the ‘equality and diversity’ dogma that dominates American corporate life. The memo didn’t address this paradox directly, but I think it’s implicit in the author’s critique of Google’s diversity programs. This dogma relies on two core assumptions:
  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism;
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.
The obvious problem is that these two core assumptions are diametrically opposed.
Let me explain. If different groups have minds that are precisely equivalent in every respect, then those minds are functionally interchangeable, and diversity would be irrelevant to corporate competitiveness. For example, take sex differences. The usual rationale for gender diversity in corporate teams is that a balanced, 50/50 sex ratio will keep a team from being dominated by either masculine or feminine styles of thinking, feeling, and communicating. Each sex will counter-balance the other’s quirks. (That makes sense to me, by the way, and is one reason why evolutionary psychologists often value gender diversity in research teams.) But if there are no sex differences in these psychological quirks, counter-balancing would be irrelevant. A 100% female team would function exactly the same as a 50/50 team, which would function the same as a 100% male team. If men are no different from women, then the sex ratio in a team doesn’t matter at any rational business level, and there is no reason to promote gender diversity as a competitive advantage.
Likewise, if the races are no different from each other, then the racial mix of a company can’t rationally matter to the company’s bottom line. The only reasons to value diversity would be at the levels of legal compliance with government regulations, public relations virtue-signalling, and deontological morality – not practical effectiveness. Legal, PR, and moral reasons can be good reasons for companies to do things. But corporate diversity was never justified to shareholders as a way to avoid lawsuits, PR blowback, or moral shame; it was justified as a competitive business necessity.
So, if the sexes and races don’t differ at all, and if psychological interchangeability is true, then there’s no practical business case for diversity.
On the other hand, if demographic diversity gives a company any competitive advantages, it must be because there are important sex differences and race differences in how human minds work and interact. For example, psychological variety must promote better decision-making within teams, projects, and divisions. Yet if minds differ across sexes and races enough to justify diversity as an instrumental business goal, then they must differ enough in some specific skills, interests, and motivations that hiring and promotion will sometimes produce unequal outcomes in some company roles. In other words, if demographic diversity yields any competitive advantages due to psychological differences between groups, then demographic equality of outcome cannot be achieved in all jobs and all levels within a company. At least, not without discriminatory practices such as affirmative action or demographic quotas.
So, psychological interchangeability makes diversity meaningless. But psychological differences make equal outcomes impossible. Equality or diversity. You can’t have both.
Weirdly, the same people who advocate for equality of outcome in every aspect of corporate life, also tend to advocate for diversity in every aspect of corporate life. They don’t even see the fundamentally irreconcilable assumptions behind this ‘equality and diversity’ dogma.

[“Jeb Kinnison” draws my attention to another article.] I just saw in an essay by Christina Hoff Sommers [see also video] on the AEI website that the National Science Foundation [!], as recently as 2007, sent around a questionnaire asking researchers to identify any research equipment in their lab building that was not accessible to women. In 2007. Seriously, I don’t know whether whoever came up with this “go find the crocodile milk” policy was gunning for a Nobel prize in Derpitude

 

derp seal

or trying to create sinecures for otherwise unemployable paper-pushers, or trying to divert bureaucratic energy into a Mobius loop that would minimize interference with serious decisions.

But on a more serious note: even before I saw the “paradox” remarks, I could not help being reminded of this passage in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The protagonist, Winston Smith, retorts to his mentor turned inquisitor:

‘But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach for ever.’
‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’
Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection:
 ‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’ 

Precisely: doublethink. Thus it is possible, for example, that certain biological differences between men and women, or between ethnic groups, can be at the same time out of bounds for polite discussion,  yet entirely taken for granted in a medical setting. I remember when Jackie Mason in the early 1990s joked about wanting an [Ashkenazi] Jewish affirmative action quota for runners and basketball players: nowadays, that joke would probably get him fired at Google, while a sports doctor treating top athletes would just chuckle.

The root of evil here is twofold:

(1) the concept that even correct factual information might be harmful as it might encourage heresy [hmm, where have we heard that one before?];

(2) considering people as interchangeable members of collectives, rather than individuals. If one considers the abilities of a specific individual, then for the case at hand it does not matter whether the average aptitudes for X differ significantly between groups A and B, or not. (There is, in any case, much greater variability between individuals within a group than between groups.)

I would add:
(2b) overconfidence in numerical benchmarks by people without a real grasp of what they mean.

Outside the strict PC/AA context, it is the fallacy in (2b) which gives rise to such pathologies as politicians pushing for ever-higher HS graduation or college enrollment rates — because they only see “the percentage has gone up from X to Y” without seeing the underlying reality. They are much like the economic planners in the (thank G-d!) former USSR, who accepted inflated production statistics of foodstuffs and consumer goods at face value, while all those not privileged enough to shop inside the Nomenklatura bubble knew well enough that they were a sham. Likewise, those of us educated in a bygone era realize that the “much greater” HS and college graduation rates of today were achieved by the educational equivalent of puppy milling:

  • the HS curriculum has for most pupils been watered down to meaninglessness;
  • supposedly “native-born and educated” college students often are deficient in basic arithmetic and reading comprehension;
  • a general education at the level we used to get at an Atheneum or Gymnasium [i.e., academic-track high schools in Europe] nowadays requires either a college degree or an expensive private prep school.

But simplistic numerical benchmarks are beloved of bureaucrats everywhere, as they are excellent excuses for bureaucratic meddling. As Instapundit is fond of remarking: the trouble with true gender- and ethnicity-blind fairness — and with true diversity, which must include the diversity of opinion —  is that “there isn’t enough opportunity for graft in it”.

PS: apropos the calling the original author of the essay names that essentially place him outside civil society, a must-read editorial in the Boston Globe by historian Niall Ferguson. His wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, knows a thing or two about what real hardcore misogyny looks like, and how useless the Western liberal left is facing it. Moneygraf of the op-ed:

Mark my words, while I can still publish them with impunity: The real tyrants, when they come, will be for diversity (except of opinion) and against hate speech (except their own).

PPS: the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress weighs in on the controversy and applies some verbal ju-jitsu.

P^3S: heh (via an Instapundit comment thread): 3r06ultwiy725dfbgce3gelzczdktgliwnw8-aldmx0

P^4S: Welcome Instapundit readers!

P^5S: Megan McArdle weighs in (via Instapundit) and reminisces about her own early years in tech.

Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a [then bleeding-edge tech, Ed.] fiber-channel network in her basement.

I’m not saying such women don’t exist; I know they do. I’m just saying that if they exist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were obviously pretty comfortable with computers. We can’t blame it on residual sexism that prevented women from ever getting into the field; the number of women working with computers has actually gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on current sexism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber-channel network in his basement; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a million years have chosen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you get up the ladder, the more important those preferences become. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through basic problems. Most smart people can be taught to build a basic workstation and hook it up to a server. But the more complicated the problems get, the more knowledge and skill they require, and the people who acquire that sort of expertise are the ones who are most passionately interested in those sorts of problems. A company like Google, which turns down many more applicants than it hires, is going to select heavily for that sort of passion. If more men have it than women, the workforce will be mostly men.

She explains how she then moved into a field — policy journalism — that is also heavily male, but that she found she could get as passionate about as her former colleagues about [then] bleeding-edge technology.  Passionate enough, in fact, that she did it for free for five years (under the blog name “Jane Galt”) until she was hired by a major national magazine on the strength of her portfolio. Passion combined with talent can move mountains—or, if you pardon the metaphor, shatter glass ceilings.

P^6S: in the libertarian magazine Reason, David Harsanyi: By firing the Google memo author, the company confirms his thesis and “The vast majority of the histrionic reactions on social media and elsewhere have misrepresented not only what the memo says but also its purpose.” In the same magazine,  Nick Gillespie adds that “The Google memo exposes a libertarian blindspot when it comes to power: it is not just the state that wields power and squelches good-faith debate”.

P^7S: now this is Muggeridge’s Law in action. (Hat tip: Marina F.) I was certain this was satire when I first saw it…

 

The beached whale ORCA: a campaign consultant con job?

I am a firm believer in Hanlon’s Rule (actually Heinlein’s Rule): “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity/incompetence”, but at times that faith gets shaken. Such as by the ORCA fiasco (see AceBusinessInsiderWaPo , CNETComputerWorldPolitico, and Breitbart) which may very well have cost Romney the election. RedState (via Althouse) now has more on how the campaign acquired this turkey. Go read it all and weep: it is a horrifying story of nest-feathering by consultants, arrogance, and campaign decisions based on bogus statistics and poll numbers from the turkey’s droppings.

The result of all of these false numbers and inaccurate ground reports is simple: Mitt Romney was ill-prepared for the actual numbers on election day and his false sense of confidence directly translated into how the campaign operated in the closing weeks. In the words of one source, it was a con job. As David Mamet famously said, “If you’re in the con game and you don’t know who the mark is … you’re the mark.” Mitt Romney had no idea what was coming.

And thanks to the greed and hubris of a few we are now stuck with four more years of the worst administration in living memory. Thanks for worse than nothing.

UPDATE: More here from Bethany Mandel. And more on the company: seems to consist of a bunch of execs and marketers and… two coders, one of which actually used to work for Al Gore. I might have been able to overlook the latter, but on principle I avoid IT companies that are “all hat and no cattle” (or all jacket and no bomber) like the plague.

Jerry Pournelle on Japanese nuclear disaster

I have been too busy in real life to do more than post links to my twitter feed over the last week or so, and reports from Japan about the nuclear incident following the tragic earthquake (thus far the 5th most intense in documented history) and resulting tsunami were too conflicting and sensationalist to write about. Let me however give the word to the inimitable Jerry Pournelle (on what is arguably the original weblog, now in its 666th week):

We are now down to an absolute worst case of two Tsar Bomba fallout equivalent from the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Note that we are talking about fallout only: there is no danger whatever of an actual nuclear explosion. The media are breathlessly telling of a nuclear cloud approaching the United States. NPR proclaims that no nukes is good nukes. The Union of Concerned Scientists will cheerfully furnish you with as gloomy a forecast as you’d like whether you ask for their view or not.

In fact the situation is slowly coming under control. Fukushima Daiichi sits on the coast amidst a scene of almost unimaginable destruction, in freezing weather, with high winds. Every road, water pipe, and power line is gone. Debris litters the passageways to the plant. Fukushima Daiichi was protected by a 20 foot sea wall. Most of the surrounding countryside wasn’t protected by a sea wall at all.

At reactor four the fuel rods were in a spent fuel pond: the reactor was shut down in December. The pond was on the roof of the reactor building, which seemed like a good idea at the time, and could withstand an 8.0 quake, and being on the roof had a really short path from the reactor to the storage pond. All was well, until the quake cracked the pool wall. Well, that’s all right, we pump in water. Only there’s no power because the reactors scrammed at the first large tremor. That’s all right, the diesels kick in and the water pumps start up. Only now there’s a tsunami. Well, that’s all right, there’s a twenty foot sea wall. Only the tsunami is 23 feet, and maybe there has been some subsidence of the land level due to the quake. Water rushes into the complex. Back at reactor 4: the water is flowing out of the spent fuel rod pool. The rods stand on end, 14 feet tall, with about 40 feet of water in the pool. The water is flowing out. Everyone is worrying more about the three reactors which are scrammed but which still contain the fuel rods. Those rods are really hot: they are full of just created fission products, some with half lives in minutes to hours so producing a lot of heat. Over in four all the really hot stuff — fission products — has decayed out. But the water is leaking. Temperatures are going up.

At some point the water in the four tank boils furiously near the zirconium rod containers. Superhot steam plus zirconium metal produces very fast rusting. This is also known as oxidation. Rapid oxidation is often called burning. The oxygen in the water is stripped off to become zirconium oxide. That leaves hydrogen (contaminated with some tritium since we still have neutrons and beta products coming from the radioactive decay of the fission byproducts). Hydrogen gets out into the room enclosing the spent fuel pool. It mixes with oxygen from the outside. It ignites. There is an explosion that blows off the roof of the rooftop spent fuel enclosure building. Water continues to leak from the pool.

The remedy is to get water into that pool, but we still don’t have much power for pumps, nor water supply, because we are still surrounded by devastation, and we still have the problem of the reactors that have just been scrammed and are really really hot because they have recently created fission products in them.

But we can call in helicopters to drop water into the now-exposed pool.  That ought to work only there is a 20 knot wind, so not all the water dropped can get into the pool, and much goes downwind in a televisible display plume.

And there we are. The good news is that the wind is blowing the results out to sea. The bad news is that a plume hundreds of miles long develops and in that plume are detectable — not dangerous but detectable — levels of radiation, and out there away from the destruction, not hampered by the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami, are a lot of  news people desperate for a story, and —   I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader. Detectible soon becomes potentially dangerous levels, and it’s hundreds and hundreds of miles, and a Union of Concerned Scientists expert will now tell you about it all.

I can’t say that this won’t be worse than Chernobyl, but so far we have no stories whatever of anyone off the plant site injured, which makes this a TMI story, not a Chernobyl story. And that’s the way things are at Noon on Thursday as best I can tell. Here’s the headline:

Japan nuclear crisis deepens as radiation keeps crews at bay

Race is on to restart cooling systems with emergency power after dropping water on damaged reactors has little effect

To the best of my knowledge the Japanese crews are winning the race. This will end up worse than TMI because many of those in the plant will be injured, and some may be killed: I understand that some workers have voluntarily exceeded their annual badge limits and by a lot because they thought their work was critical. At TMI there were no off site injuries, and the worst to the workers was that they exceeded their badge limits and were sent away. At Daiichi there have so far been no off site injuries, but some to many of the plant workers have exceeded their badge limits. In addition six or more have mechanical injuries, some from the hydrogen explosions, one from a heart attack. Pray for them.

Indeed. Jerry puts in a well-deserved plug to the MIT Nuclear Information Hub. weblog, which is now frequently updated with lots of relevant info. Get thee over there.

And just to give some perspective on the scale of the disaster caused by the tsunami, have a look at this video sent to me by Mrs. F2. At first the combination of new agey background music and what deceptively seems like shots of a peaceful tide rolling will throw you off, but as the images zoom in the devastation is revealed for what it is, and the continuing background music creates a chilling, Lalo Shifrin-esque emotional counterpoint.

 

Declaration of Independence, Twitter style

Depressingly, a Marist Poll revealed that 40% Of 18-29 Year-Olds Don’t Know Why We Celebrate The 4th Of July. [http://shar.es/m96bA]

So perhaps, it has to be explained in a way that will “reach” the Twitter/SMS generation. In honor of Independence Day, Slate started a contest on Twitter to summarize the Declaration of Independence in 140 characters or less. (That length would also fit an SMS.)

You can see the results in real-time here: http://twitter.com/#search?q=%23TinyDeclaration

Some personal picks:

badanes Our Rights from Creator (h/t @JLocke). Life, Liberty, PoH FTW! Your transgressions = FAIL. GTFO, @GeorgeIII. -HANCOCK et al #TinyDeclaration

chrispreilly Dear king, you are fired. We will govern ourselves. God created us & gave us rights. We have our reasons. #TinyDeclaration

scotters Hate to do this publicly and to this extent King George, but we’ve had enough of your high taxes. We’re done. Bye. #TinyDeclaration

FreeRangeMom We are reluctant to take this step, but because the King is grievously unfair, we declare ourselves to be independent #TinyDeclaration

ericinva Dudes…@KingGeorge is totally killing our buzz. So, like, everyone unfollow him, ‘kay? #TinyDeclaration

mpsever England, bro, we’re breaking up the band. Gonna work on a solo project for a bit. May tour Europe in 1940s. You can open. #tinydeclaration

prmros RT @TheIncumbent: @TheRealKingGeorgeIII We’re closing our @13colonies acct. We’re now @USofA. PS ur off our #ff list. #TinyDeclaration

dr_bombay yes, we can haz Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness etc. – Independence FTW! PS: bring it, @KingGeorge3 — it is ON, buddy. #TinyDeclaration

dmataconis Hey @KingGeorge, we got these rights that even a blind man can see. You violated them. So, f**k off. #TinyDeclaration

bdeak17 We both knew where this long distance relationship was going. Face it, we are different pple now, we want to try new things #TinyDeclaration

ericinva Hey, @KingGeorge, we’re done with you. #blocked #TinyDeclaration

danielstroud Dear G III R- We get MPs or you get the business end of our muskets. Now put that in your cup & drink it. (Not) Yours, TJ #tinydeclaration

CatRey We’re not gonna take it. No! We ain’t gonna take it! We’re not gonna take it- Anymore. #twistedsister #tinydeclaration

NEHgov Dear George, it’s not you. It’s U.S. #TinyDeclaration See T.J’s rough draft at NEH-funded PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON http://tiny.cc/crrb8

Happy Fourth of July Weekend!