Goodbye, Jerry

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Jerry PournelleOn September 8, noted science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle passed away quietly in his sleep. Jerry was yet another amazing individual whom I had the very good pleasure to know personally over many years and one whom I’ll miss more than most. He was quite a unique man.

In 1985, I was in the third year of running my quality assurance company, Top Star, which was the first such company of its type in the fledgling computer games industry. One of our clients was a little known company called Binary Systems. They were developing a game that would go on to become my all-time favorite, Starflight. One day during its development, I had an argument with Binary’s core designer, Greg Johnson. What we argued about specifically is long forgotten, but Greg mentioned that someone else with whom they’d been talking had the same exact criticism. He suggested that the two of us should get together and compare notes to better help the game. That person was Jerry.

Understand that, by 1985, Jerry and his longtime writing partner Larry Niven had written countless top science fiction books. While I was a fan of some limited science fiction novels, I only really knew the names of a few of its authors like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In other words, I had no idea who Jerry really was, and I hadn’t read any of his books (a fact that I was too embarrassed to ever admit to him). To me, he was just another guy writing about computers (then for the amazing Byte magazine). This was also at a time when the PC community was so small that you could still get people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others on the phone simply by calling them. It was a totally different world than it is today. The two of us were introduced, and we talked often over the next several months, bonding over our mutual love for this unique little space exploration game. That discussion led to a fairly regular back-and-forth dialogue about all things technology that continued for more than 30 years.

In those days, we were both addicted to chasing the limits of what a PC could do. We spent ages burning our own BIOS chips. (That was a thing then.) We’d call up one another if either of us found a setting or tweak that would provide another 1% boost in performance. (Ah, the memories of Microid Research and Mike Meisner‘s incredible MR BIOS.) Memory management was another major topic of the day. It was nearly an art form, given the hard limits of what you could do with the meager RAM of a DOS-based PC. When Quarterdeck put out a product called QEMM and, later, its incredible management tool Manifest, it sparked near-marathon calling sessions comparing each of our approaches to saving another 4K of RAM. We’d spend hours going back and forth over the smallest adjustments to our settings. Another favorite topic was a product called 4DOS (and the great support from Mike Bessy), which was a replacement command interpreter that allowed you to pull off all kinds of advanced operating system magic now common in products like PowerShell. Jerry would also spend much of our early relationship trying, in vain, to convert me over to using one of his favorite products, Norton Commander. We both shared a deep love of and countless discussions over products like DESQview, GeoWorks, QmodemOS/2 Warp, Stacker, ViewSonic monitors, Perstor hard disk drive controllers and so many others.

We both received the most cutting-edge products, usually for free, from all of the various manufacturers who were hoping that we’d write about them in our various columns. We had a great laugh when we realized that one of our biggest challenges was dealing with all of the cardboard boxes and most especially the oodles of packing “popcorn” that could be found all over both of our homes. Talk about a great problem to have. The one time that I visited his house, he took me to one of his rooms where boxes and products filled every available space from floor to ceiling and books on all topics filled much of the rest of the house. Most of the boxes were unopened, and many were filled with multi-thousand-dollar monitors and other equally valuable products.

There were even times when the two of us would tag-team manufacturers to have them make key changes to hardware that we felt would benefit everyone or, at the least, us. One of the earliest examples that I can still recall is with a now-defunct PC company called Northgate. Northgate’s PCs were decent, but nothing special. However, what they did have were the best keyboards on the planet at that time. Their most popular keyboard, the OmniKey, was a byproduct of a then-recent shift in keyboard design. The earliest PC keyboards all had 10 function keys on the left edge in five rows of two columns. Newer systems came with keyboards that moved the function keys to where they are today (and added F11 and F12). That sort of overnight radical change annoyed a huge number of people. Northgate responded by putting out a keyboard that moved the function keys back to the left side where their marketing folks claimed that they belonged. It was such a popular move that Northgate quickly realized that they were selling far more keyboards than computers. Everyone wanted one. However, Jerry and I were both sure that they could do one better. We suggested a few changes, including offering function keys on both the left and across the top to appeal to every consumer. The results were another two keyboard designs, the OmniKey Ultra and OmniKey Ultra-T, which quickly became their best sellers. Northgate sent both of us countless keyboards over the ensuing years, and when the last ones finally gave out, we searched high and low for comparable alternatives — a search that would go on until just recently. In fact, one of the last interactions that we had was when I informed him of the recent unexpected resurgence of mechanical-type keyboards and his muted excitement because his own ability to type had been hindered since suffering a stroke in 2014.

Another wonderful example of this great access and input involved the current design of the computer mouse. I don’t recall the year exactly, but it was likely near the tail end of the 1980s. Logitech sent us both a sample of what they were calling a revolution in mouse design. It was a three-button mouse in the literal shape of a half-cylinder, and they were calling it the first ergonomic mouse. It was nothing of the sort. When Jerry and I discussed it, we both immediately took issue with the “ergonomic” claim and told Logitech’s PR person that the claim was a joke. The very next day, she called back to ask if we’d both get on a call with Logitech’s founder, Pierluigi Zappacosta. He wanted to know, firsthand, what we were both going on about, so together, the two of us made our mutual case that an ergonomic mouse was one that followed the actual shape of a hand. We suggested that he take a chunk of clay and form it to a relaxed hand sitting on a desk. The resulting shape would be a real ergonomic design. Much to our surprise, Zappacosta said, “Give me a few weeks and I’ll send you something.” We’d heard this sort of comment before and forgot all about it. Roughly three months later, a FedEx package appeared in both of our mailboxes, and inside was the very first truly ergonomic mouse designed exactly the way that we described. That afternoon, we were on the phone again with Zappacosta praising him for an amazing new product. That basic change is still the driving force behind nearly every popular mouse on the market today.

Personally, Jerry was a curious individual. He could be entirely chummy with me and completely different with someone else. A classic example of this happened whenever he’d call my house. If I picked up the phone, he’d say, “Hey, it’s Jerry.” If my first wife, Cheryl, picked up the phone, even if it was for the 10,000th time, he’d say, “This is Doctor J. E. Pournelle calling for Rich Heimlich. Is he at home?” Cheryl would crack up every single time. “It’s Doctor Pournelle again,” she’d say laughingly. People would often tell me of their challenging, sometimes negative interactions that they had with him, but I never had any such experience. I guess that some people just rubbed him the wrong way. More times than not the issue was that Jerry was simply smarter than most people. Then again, Jerry traveled in circles that placed him in an orbit that few of us ever get to experience.

I found out about this on one of our calls back during the Bill Clinton administration. We were talking about robots and space when Jerry shared a story about his involvement with NASA. That alone should give you a hint. His voice became very animated as he described his view of the X-Robot project, which later became Mars Pathfinder (the first Mars rover). He was upset about how he felt NASA was screwing it up. Then he said, “So I marched into Al’s office and gave him and General Johnson a piece of my mind.” I asked, “Al who?” and he responded, “Al Gore, you idiot.” I made up the General’s name as I’ve long forgotten it, but it suffices to say that he was one of Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. Here was this guy whom I knew as just another person working to put food on the table, only to find out that he’s able to march into the Vice President’s office and dress down him and a top General. Okay.

Jerry was also pretty well known for his political views, but for much of our relationship, it really rarely came up. I’m a left-leaning independent, but from his perspective, I might as well have been Mao Zedong. Jerry’s idea of conservatism was so hard right that it would circle clear back through the left before landing on the hard right again. Whenever we did talk politics, he was often one of the most open-minded people. His responses might be spirited now and again, but rarely would they ever be insulting.

Over the years, a number of people who found out that I was friends with Jerry would ask how I could stand the guy. Whenever this happened, I’d just have to shake my head and tell them that he’d been nothing but a stand-up, straight-shooting fellow who, more than a few times, put in a good word for me when he thought that it might help. He did this for many people. That’s the Jerry I knew and the one that I will miss for the rest of my days. If there is an afterlife, I have no doubt that he’s already hard at work turning it into a better place.

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    • It’s hard today to fully grasp the sheer power Jerry’s word carried. He was literally the Oprah Winfrey of his prime writing years. Manufacturers and publishers moved mountains to make sure he was happy with their products. People knew I talked with Jerry and would often call me trying to find out what he thought of the products, trying to get me to suggest he like their products or to get direct access to him through me. Public relations people literally feared him, and for good reason. If he didn’t like the product of a company that oversold its features his displeasure voiced in a column could decimate its sales. Very few press people of the day had that kind of sway and he was one of them.

  1. I didn’t know Jerry Pournelle personally but I felt like I did. Every month when my Byte magazine would arrive I would drop whatever I was doing to read about the latest goings on at Chaos Manor. I had never so much enjoyed a monthly column as I did Jerry’s, and frankly, I haven’t enjoyed any as much since. I miss Byte, I miss Chaos Manor and now I miss Jerry Pournelle too.

    • Jerry absolutely loved Byte Magazine. We conversed about his columns many, many times and I’m proud to say I was mentioned in them a few times.

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