Call me a grinch, but I’m not a big fan of Christmas.
What should be a celebration of the Prince Of Peace has turned into an International Capitalist Feeding Frenzy, with too many businesses and even whole economies depending on a month of consumer spending for their survival for the rest of the year. I don’t consider that a sustainable model for a personal budget and I doubt that it is any more sustainable when it is multiplied by hundreds of millions. It is a global potlatch that serves nothing but greed. In my not-so humble opinion.
The last time I launched into this particular bit of curmudgeonry, That Pesky Dan Goodman asked me what I think we should do instead. Without pause, I replied, “Kindness Day.”
No, not the occasional random act of kindness just because you feel like it, but conscious deliberate kindness, methodically planned and executed, whether you feel like it or not. An act of generosity that makes a difference for someone else.
My first thought was August 17th, the most nondescript day of the year. August doesn’t have any real holidays of its own and 17 is a number totally without significance in any logic system that I know of. Then I decided that one day a year isn’t enough, so I have declared a personal Kindness Day of my own on the 17th of every month. (What you do on the 17th is your business. What I do on the 17th will be an act of deliberate unselfishness.) (If I can think of one.) (It might be a stretch.)
To kick it off, I want to do a tribute to one of the most under-appreciated men in both computing and science fiction. (I’m not sure if this will be published on the 17th, if it isn’t I’ll have to do another act of kindness too….) [It's not, sorry Dave. -ed]
I’m talking about Jerry Pournelle.
Pournelle and I met over forty years ago and from the very first moment, I totally disliked him. He and I got into a lot of ferocious arguments over politics. And sometimes he got awfully loud—well, so did I. He could consume mass quantities of alcohol, which was dangerous to the people around him, because sometimes he broke out into song. Terrible terrible song. Did I mention that he’s also tone-deaf?
In the seventies and eighties and nineties Jerry Pournelle collaborated with Larry Niven on a series of marvelous novels, including The Mote In God’s Eye, Footfall, and my personal favorite, Inferno (a twentieth century remapping of Hell, and well worth the read because the two of them finally made Hell theologically logical.) Pournelle also served as the president of the Science Fiction Writers of America for a couple of terms and demonstrated that it really is possible to herd cats—if you don’t mind stepping on a few tails.
Politically, Pournelle says he’s somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. (No, not the Ricardo Montalban Khan, the other one.) But he also sometimes brags about being thrown out of the Communist Party for trying to be logical. I suspect, and this is my personal assessment, that what really motivates Pournelle is a passion for pragmatism. How do you make it work? How do you make it work better?
Which brings me to Chaos Manor.
Back in the days before the internet, computer nerds and geeks had FIDOnet, CompuServe, various BBS systems, the ARPAnet, and the newsstand. The newsstand was the most accessible source of reliable information. There were dozens of magazines being published every month, but my favorites were Personal Computing, Recreational Computing, Kilobaud, and Byte. This was years before the IBM-PC, so it was also years before PC-World, PC-Magazine, PC-Gamer, and etc.
Of all the magazines, Byte was the best. It was also the thickest, usually an inch or more, with over 300 pages. Its articles were long and thoughtful, heavily detailed, and a monthly textbook for the growing computer industry. A lot of the focus was on programming and languages. There were ferocious debates about Fortran, BASIC, Pascal, Forth, Lisp, and all the variants. There were advocates for assembly language for speed, BASIC for ease of use, compiled Pascal (and P-code) for speed and portability and self-commenting code.
But by the time the IBM-PC hit the market, the language wars were settling down and the emphasis of the magazines shifted more towards hardware and published software reviews.
In the middle of all of this, Jerry Pournelle began what eventually became the longest running column in Byte’s history—Chaos Manor. The real Chaos Manor is in Studio City, on a relatively quiet street not too far from the notorious traffic bottleneck of Laurel Canyon. Pournelle’s office was a techie’s dream and an interior decorator’s nightmare.
Pournelle regularly wrote about his adventures installing and using hardware, software, peripherals, and patches—whether or it worked or not, how well it worked, whether or not it was worth the effort. He reviewed all kinds of products, whatever crossed his desk. He was fair to the products and the people who produced them, applauding their triumphs, lamenting their weaknesses, and regularly hoping that the next upgrade would fulfill the promise. He was the Leo Laporte of his time.
Pournelle has never taken himself too seriously. He used to describe his column as a contemporary variant of what you might have found in one of the old men’s magazines of the forties: “Me and Joe Went Fishing.” (“We went to Lake Whatchamacallit, we spent the weekend on Joe’s old houseboat, I used the Venus Butterfly lure and Joe used the Spanish Fly. I caught a cold and Joe caught the pox.”) But it was precisely this level of information that was most useful to the average reader of Byte. Pournelle was reporting what worked and what didn’t work—and what he had to do to make it work right. He was candid about what software he favored, but he also acknowledged the value of software he didn’t use regularly. He made computing accessible to a lot of people who felt intimidated by the learning curve.
It’s my belief that Pournelle’s columns humanized computing—made it fun. I think Jerry Pournelle established a healthy approach that a lot of other computer journalists, myself included, used as a great starting point.
Pournelle has also been active for many years as an aggressive space advocate. As a member of the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy, he contributed to the goal of the United States putting up a permanent space station, and parts of his work even made it into national policy during the Reagan administration. In the eighties, he loved sharing a story about Robert A. Heinlein bawling out Arthur C. Clarke for favoring robots over manned-space exploration.
A lot of that information is available on Wikipedia, of course. But here’s what I know about Jerry Pournelle. He has a big heart. He has a generous soul. He is committed to making a difference in the world. He has done this on a personal level with acts of kindness too numerous to list here. He has done it on a professional and political level as well. While I don’t always agree with some of his assertions, he usually has the facts and logic to back them up. You don’t win an argument with Jerry Pournelle, but if you are reasonably well-prepared with your own research, you can establish a respectful DMZ.
I respect Pournelle a lot. And truth be told, I’ve come to like him as much as I respect him. Hell, I even admire him. He has a lot of interesting experiences to share—about space, about writing, about computing, about traveling, about the world. I had dinner with him and his family at CES a few years back and was impressed with the warmth and humanity he demonstrated.
It’s too bad that the computer community seems to have forgotten its own past. The seventies and the eighties were a time of great unknowns and marvelous pioneers who weren’t afraid to explore the possibilities before them. I think those are the shoulders that the rest of us are standing on today. Pournelle was there then and he’s still here now.
Occasionally, we need to stop and acknowledge the contributions of others. And say thank you.
Not just because it’s an act of kindness, but because it’s the right thing to do.
David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com