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.

 

Advertisements

RIP Chuck Berry, and a musicological note

If there is any one figure who truly deserves the title “father of rock’n roll”, it’s Chuck Berry — and even those who would give the title to Little Richard would have to concede Chuck is the musical patriarch of all rock’n roll guitar players. Which does not mean he is the only influence — progressive and hard rock players, especially, drew inspiration from Western classical music and jazz — but Chuck Berry licks can be heard in guitar players from AC/DC’s Angus Young to, yes, the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones.

Chuck joined the Great Gig In The Sky, but his legacy endures. In an article linked in Instapundit’s obituary, a musical point came up that made me go ‘aha’ and deserves some elaboration:

One of the brilliant things Keith did was that he found Johnnie Johnson. He was the incredible piano player on those Chuck Berry records, and he was driving a bus. He came in and he was the heart of the band, infused it with authenticity, brilliance and generosity. Chuck was there as he had inspired us all but, through the process, Chuck was thorny at best, and a nightmare at worst, while Johnnie was a saint. Keith had come to the realisation that, unlike most guitar rock’n’rollers, Chuck Berry’s music was different; it was in piano keys, not in guitar keys. When Keith saw how Johnnie worked, he realised that, probably, Johnnie had been part of most of the songwriting that Chuck Berry did. Like a musicologist, a lifelong aficionado and student of Chuck Berry’s, Keith was just talking about what he had heard. He made a discovery which was in the film.

What does he mean, “guitar keys” and “piano keys”?

Guitarists who write songs on their own  tend to gravitate to keys that have one or more open strings in the guitar tuning they are in, preferably on the tonic (“ground note”), and if the dominant is also an open string, better still. This isn’t just for ease of playing, by the way — but also for the extra resonance/”ringing” that open strings add.

In standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), that causes lots of rock songs to be written in E, A, or D, less so in G or B. A similar argument applies to bass players who write songs, BTW: Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris (bassist, band leader, and primary composer) definitely favors E, A, and D (both major and minor each), with a fondness for modulations (key changes) to keys like F# minor.

Guitarists are well aware of this, and some deliberately use alternate tunings (scordaturas, in classical-speak) as a compositional device. (This is the reason, BTW, why you see e.g. John Petrucci change guitars so many times during a Dream Theater concert: retuning live would just take up too much time.) Some guitarists use just a single alternate tuning mainly or exclusively: e.g. Keith Richards uses open-G tuning most of the time (xGDGBD, where the x indicates he doesn’t use the lowest string). Many metal bands tune one or more half-steps down for a darker sound: I don’t quite know who started the trend, but I do know Jimi Hendrix tuned a half-step flat on “Voodoo Chile”, and surely inspired others to do the same (such as his onetime roadie “Lemmy”, later frontman of Motorhead). A very common alternate tuning in alternative rock and metal is “drop D”, in which the bottom string of standard tuning is lowered a whole step — this allows for playing power chords (=root-fifth-octave) with a single finger, permitting rapid power chord motions that would be nearly impossible in standard tuning. Guess what: most classic songs of a band like Tool are in… D.

Okay, what does all that have to do with Chuck Berry and his pianist? Look at the keys of just two of Berry’s best-known classics: B flat (Johnny B. Goode, a tribute to his pianist Johnnie Johnson) and E flat (Roll Over Beethoven). These are (somewhat) awkward keys on a guitar in standard tuning, and most guitarists who play in standard won’t use them if they can help it, let alone start writing songs in them. But they do  work just fine for boogie-woogieing on a piano 🙂 Actually, most guitarists I know will play Johnny B. Goode in A (as Ted Nugent did in his tribute to Berry), although the most famous Roll Over Beethoven cover (that by The Beatles) of course preserves the original key.

Keith Richards actually went as far as to suggest Berry co-wrote his songs with pianist Johnnie Johnson, which led to a notorious fistfight between the two. However, one need not reach that far or “pitch” that strongly (no pun intended) — there is a much more benign possible explanation. Berry’s first steady gig had started as a last-minute replacement for the soloist in Johnnie Johnson’s jazz trio (after saxophonist Alvin Bennett had suffered a stroke) — and presumably Berry had learned to “fit in” with Johnnie’s pre-existing piano arrangements. Not coincidentally perhaps, Eb and Bb happen to be the “home keys” for alto and tenor saxophones, respectively….

As a final note, allow me to include this letter by Carl Sagan to Chuck Berry:

carl-sagan-wrote-this-letter-to-chuck-berry-on-the-musicians-60th-birthday-to-tell-him-just-how-imp

Enjoy the Great Gig, Chuck.

 

End of an era: Shimon Peres (1923-2016)

The Times has a mostly fair-minded obituary. Peres may not technically have been one of Israel’s Founding Fathers (the way David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were), but he was the last living representative of “the founder generation” of Israeli politics.

A protégé of David Ben-Gurion’s, he started his career in the final years of the Mandate as the person in charge of arms acquisition for the Haganah, and continued to act in that capacity after the founding of the state and the Haganah’s transformation from the pre-state militia  into the IDF.  In 1952 he was appointed deputy director general of the Ministry of Defense, becoming director-general (and de facto minister) in 1953 at the age of 30. He has been a mainstay of the Israeli political landscape for over six decades, ending with his term as  President (a mostly ceremonial position) from mid-2007 until mid-2014.

There is a Hebrew saying, acharei mot kedoshim (after their death, saints) — a pun on the titles of two consecutive Torah readings, acharei mot (Leviticus 16-18) and kedoshim. (Leviticus 19-20). “Do not speak ill of the dead,” if you like. I am however reminded of Oliver Cromwell, who told a painter to paint his portrait, “warts and all”. Paradoxically, because Peres was too great a man to need hagiography.

In his early career, Peres made tremendous contributions to the Israeli defense establishment and the security of the State. The Israel air force, Israel Aircraft Industries, RAFAE”L (Hebrew letter word for reshut le-pituach emtza’ei lechima, Weapon Systems Development Authority), Israel’s alleged nuclear deterrent… all came about on Peres’s watch. In 1959 he was first elected to the Knesset on the Mapai (mifleget poalei eretz Israel, Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel) ticket, and became Deputy Defense Minister (again, de facto minister, as Ben-Gurion officially held the portfolio himself).

In 1965, Peres, Ben-Gurion, and Moshe Dayan broke away from Mapai as  a new ticket Rafi (reshimat poalei Israel, Israel Workers List). After the Six-Day War, Mapai and Rafi merged into ha-Ma`arach (the [Labor] Alignment), and Peres joined the cabinet first as Immigrant Absorption Minister, then as Postmaster General and Information Minister. An intense rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin (Chief of Staff during the Six-Day War, later ambassador to the US) started with their competition for the Defense portfolio. After the Yom Kippur War and the resignation of Golda Meir, Rabin became Prime Minister and Peres Minister of Defense. Ironically, Peres was then the more hawkish of the two, fostering settlements in the disputed territories on the one hand and green-lighting the daring Entebbe Rescue on the other hand.

Peres never fared well at elections: an old Israeli joke was that “he could run against himself and still lose”. He always felt more in his element in the boardroom and carrying out diplomacy (sometimes incognito) with the high and mighty than on the campaign trail. He succeeded Rabin as party leader following the latter’s forced resignation over a (by today’s standards picayune) financial peccadillo: Rabin had maintained a US bank account from his days as ambassador, which had about $2,000 in it. (The law prohibiting Israelis from maintaining foreign bank accounts would later rightly be wiped off the books.) Peres’s triumph was brief: the general election put Menachem Begin’s Likud in power, and consigned the Labor Alignment to the opposition for the first time in history.

Peres had another shining moment after Begin’s “I cannot go on” (eineini yachol `od) resignation following the Lebanon War (and the demise of his wife Aliza Begin, to whom he was deeply attached). In the following National Unity Government, Peres and the Likud finance minister Yitzhak Moda’i put a stop to the hyperinflation that was ravaging the country. Under the coalition agreement, Peres started out as PM and Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir as Foreign Minister: after two years, the two men traded posts. Peres engaged in ample “behind the scenes” diplomacy in that era — something at which he excelled.

Following another narrow loss at the polls, the national unity coalition was continued, now with Shamir as PM all the way through. A failed scheme by Peres to topple the government in favor of a coalition of the left wing with fervently religious parties entered the Israeli political lexicon as ha-targil ha-masriach (“the stinky maneuver”, a term coined by Rabin).

After Rabin led Labor to victory in the 1992 elections, Peres became Foreign Minister in  his cabinet — the two erstwhile rivals established a surprisingly good working relationship until Rabin’s assassination. Here his main legacy became the Oslo Agreements — which must have “seemed a good idea at the time” but would become ashes in the mouths of so many of us.

Peres’s party was widely expected to win the election in the wave of sympathy and mourning following the Rabin assassination. True to form, he lost again, and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu became PM for the first time.  Former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak replaced Peres at the helm of Labor and three years later led it to victory in the polls, but left Peres on the sideline as Minister of Economic Cooperation.

Following the collapse of the Camp David Talks and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Barak lost a direct election for Prime Minister to Ariel Sharon. Peres brought Labor into Sharon’s coalition, thus forming another national unity government and holding the Foreign Ministry once again.

His record as foreign minister was mixed. While his personal diplomatic skills are undisputed, FM insiders have told me he devoted little attention to the ministry’s hasbara (“explanation”, PR) activities: he was quoted as saying that a good policy sells itself, while a bad policy cannot be sold. (It is fitting that my interlocutor, who generally is opposed to Netanyahu’s policies and favors those of Peres, acknowledged Netanyahu’s running of the ministry was much more effective.)

When Sharon founded a new centrist “Kadima” party and pursued a policy of unilateral disengagement, Peres followed him to Kadima and became his ally. After Sharon was rendered permanently unconscious by  a cerebral hemorrhage, Peres became deputy PM under Sharon’s successor Olmert.

Peres had earlier run for the post of President (the largely ceremonial head of state of Israel), but lost to Moshe Katzav in the Knesset vote. Katzav was ultimately forced to resign, and eventually imprisoned, in a sexual harassment scandal. Peres threw his hat in the ring again, successfully this time. His tenure as President restored dignity and prestige to the office, friend and foe agreeing he was perfect for the position.

Throughout it all, Peres remained a workaholic with an extraordinary drive, an insatiable intellectual curiosity, and an energy level that belied his age. It was widely assumed that Peres would either die with his boots on, or shortly after finally having to retire.

On a personal note: Across Peres’s triumphs and failures, and the many decades of his career, the one constant feature that stands out to me is his fascination with science and technology. Even just a couple of years ago, he could still be relied upon to hold forth to philanthropists, VC types, and foreign dignitaries on nanotech, renewable energy, virtual reality, you name it.

Some loved him, some hated him, many of us did both at one time or another. The prophet of the New Middle East, the ‘indefatigable schemer’ (chatran bilti nil’e, as Rabin called him in his memoirs), the arms master of early Israel, the father of our nuclear program,… he was all that and more. A man larger than life. Once there was a giant. May his memory be blessed.

PS: movie buffs might be interested to know that Peres (born Szymon Persky in Vishnyeva, present-day Belarus) was a second cousin of Lauren Bacall (born Betty Joan Perske).