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.)


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.


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.


The revolt of the masses and our ruling class

Jerry Pournelle quotes “The revolt of the masses” by Jose Ortega y Gasset:

Doubtless the most radical division of humanity that can be made is that between two classes of creatures: those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be in every instant only what they already are.

* * *

The mass-man would never have accepted authority external to himself had not his surroundings violently forced him to do so. As to-day, his surroundings do not so force him, the everlasting mass-man, true to his character, ceases to appeal to other authority and feels himself lord of his own existence. On the contrary the select man, the excellent man is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.… Contrary to what is usually thought, it is the man of excellence, and not the common man who lives in essential servitude. Life has no savour for him unless he makes it consist in service to something transcendental. Hence he does not look upon the necessity of serving as an oppression. When, by chance, such necessity is lacking, he grows restless and invents some new standard, more difficult, more exigent, with which to coerce himself. This is life lived as a discipline — the noble life.

A superficial, out-of-context reading would make Ortega y Gasset seem like an elitist. However, Wikipedia (of all places) clarifies:

Ortega is throughout quite critical of both the masses and the mass-men of which they are made up, contrasting “noble life and common life” and excoriating the barbarism and primitivism he sees in the mass-man. He does not, however, refer to specific social classes, as has been so commonly misunderstood in the English-speaking world. Ortega states that the mass-man could be from any social background, but his specific target is the bourgeois educated man, the señorito satisfecho (satisfied young man or Mr. Satisfied), the specialist who believes he has it all and extends the command he has of his subject to others, contemptuous of his ignorance in all of them. His summary of what he attempted in the book exemplifies this quite well, while simultaneously providing the author’s own views on his work: “In this essay an attempt has been made to sketch a certain type of European, mainly by analyzing his behaviour as regards the very civilization into which he was born”. This had to be done because that individual “does not represent a new civilisation struggling with a previous one, but a mere negation …”

The members of the over-credentialed, under-educated US “elite” and commentariat fit the image of the señorito satisfecho to a tee.

Jerry Pournelle on Egypt

Jerry Pournelle:

It’s getting more clear: the Egyptian Army is waiting things out. The US official policy is idealism: the US supports democracy and freedom, and opposes oppression, and —

The realistic appraisal is a bit different. And exactly what is democracy? The Egyptian middle class doesn’t think that a modern country chases a President into exile at the demands of a mob. Neither does the Army. The Army doesn’t want to fire on the populace. The silly test of crowd resolve, a bunch of civil servants and tourist guide union people “armed” with riding corps riding into the square, showed that the crowd wouldn’t disperse without serious action by the Army. Having the cops shoot people wasn’t in the cards. The Army told Mubarak to retire, with honor, and he has agreed to; luckily for all his term ends shortly anyway. The mob refuses to disperse; the Army waits. It hasn’t yet said it is time to go home, but many Egyptians would like to have an economy again. The feeling among many of the middle class is “He will retire, his son won’t run for office, well have a technocrat as the next President. What more do we want? We don’t like the Jews, but we don’t want another war either.”

There will be elements who want to provoke the Army, and there are reports of shooting at the bridges.

The Al Jazeera footage shows night fighting with night sights on weapons; that’s probably the police. It wasn’t indiscriminate firing. Unlikely to be the Army.

Assuming that things don’t boil, Mubarak will leave in the fall. With military honors, and he will take up residence somewhere near government house, probably with a role much like Clinton has.

That will be in Fall. There is enough time to have some organization of a “loyal opposition” and that will probably happen. Meanwhile there are food riots across the Arab world, and the US continues to subsidize burning corn in automobiles so we can avoid importing oil from countries that pay for wheat and maize.

Read also his earlier entries on the same page. But do not worry. The country is in the very best of hands.

UPDATE: Clarice Feldman (via Insty): The Incredible Lightness of Obama.

The Egyptian, an 82-year-old with terminal cancer, easily bested the community organizer, the man elected by people who quite clearly confused the last presidential election with an American idol contest. While many who elected the American president probably do not yet realize it, it is lucky for them that he lost the showdown, for had he not, the results would have created worldwide havoc and devastation.

And also:

The man who in 2009 in Cairo said, “So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by any other” was now dictating to Mubarak the kind of government Egypt should have and when it should have it.  Mubarak noted only the obvious: that if he stepped down immediately, the situation would devolve into chaos.  The rulers of Egypt have a stake in its continued existence which supersedes Obama’s adolescent moral preening.  Had Obama any real interest in democracy in Egypt, he would have followed Bush’s lead and done something to help bring that about before this.[…]

I think it’s a good rule of thumb that whenever Obama begins a statement with “Let me be clear,” he means quite the opposite of whatever follows.  And someone might whisper in his ear that if you run around the world bowing deeply before foreign rulers and undermining your country’s moral position and standing in the world, you cannot expect to have your imperious demands be taken seriously abroad.