Six turning and four burning

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was the largest mass-produced piston-engined aircraft ever built, with the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built:

The genesis of the B-36 can be traced to early 1941, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. At the time it appeared there was a very real chance that Britain might fall to the German “Blitz”, making a strategic bombing effort by the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) against Germany impossible with the aircraft of the time.

[...]

After the establishment of an independent United States Air Force in 1947, the beginning in earnest of the Cold War with the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and the 1949 atmospheric test of the first Soviet atomic bomb, American military planners sought bombers capable of delivering the very large and heavy first-generation atomic bombs.

The B-36 was the only American aircraft with the range and payload to carry such bombs from airfields on American soil to targets in the USSR. The modification to allow the use of larger atomic weapons on the B-36 was called the “Grand Slam Installation”.

[...]

Beginning with the B-36D, Convair added a pair of General Electric J47-19 jet engines suspended near the end of each wing; these were also retrofitted to all extant B-36Bs. Consequently, the B-36 was configured to have ten engines, six radial propeller engines and four jet engines, leading to the B-36 slogan of “six turning and four burning”. The B-36 had more engines than any other mass-produced aircraft. The jet pods greatly improved takeoff performance and dash speed over the target. In normal cruising flight, the jet engines were shut down to conserve fuel. When the jet engines were shut down, louvers closed off the front of the pods to reduce drag and to prevent ingestion of sand and dirt.

The B-36 features prominently in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, along with Jimmy Stewart, who was a real-life military pilot:

He does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate

Monday, October 9th, 2017

I recently shared a video about how American animated films have progressed from conservative fairy tales to liberal allegories as CGI technology has transformed the filmmaking process:

T. Greer doesn’t quite agree with the videomaker’s characterization:

Perhaps a better phrase for these films would be “Mencian fairy tales.” Ancient China nerdery is strong among my readers, and most of you probably understand the reference. For those who don’t, an explanation: Mencius is a famous philosopher who discoursed his way across the central Chinese plains back in ye olde ancient days. In the textual record he is depicted as the first great Confucian after Confucius himself. One of his big ideas was that the most important way to ensure stability and happiness of a kingdom is cultivate virtue in its ruler.

[...]

For Mencius, politics is ultimately personal. The rise and fall of kingdoms and countries is a matter of character. But this is hardly an idea unique to the Chinese tradition. When Hamlet struts onto the stage and declares that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark” he does not mean that the state of Denmark needs to adjust its tax rate, or that it the bureaucracy is overstaffed and inefficient, or that the Danish peasantry are being oppressed by the yoke of entrenched intersectional prejudices embedded in its structures of power. Hamlet means that the court of Denmark has nosedived into moral decline, and that the stench of the court’s moral depravity poisons all of the kingdom around it.

So it is with most of these Disney stories.

He was a very different person than when he wrote “Imagine”

Monday, October 9th, 2017

Today is John Lennon’s birthday. What most people don’t realize is that by 1979 Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism, according to Fred Seaman, who was his assistant at the time:

John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on Jimmy Carter.

[...]

I also saw John embark in some really brutal arguments with my uncle, who’s an old-time communist… He enjoyed really provoking my uncle… Maybe he was being provocative… but it was pretty obvious to me he had moved away from his earlier radicalism.

He was a very different person back in 1979 and 80 than he’d been when he wrote Imagine. By 1979 he looked back on that guy and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete.

The full transcript doesn’t feel like the edited trailer

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

I don’t closely follow Mike Cernovich or Vice, but it is interesting to contrast the full interview transcript against the heavily edited trailer Vice put out:

From conservative fairy tales to liberal allegories

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

American animated films progressed from conservative fairy tales to liberal allegories as CGI technology transformed the filmmaking process:

Jerry’s second chat with Leo Laporte

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

I enjoyed the second installment of Leo Laporte’s interview with Jerry Pournelle, too:

(This time he mentions HeathKit…)

No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

In writing Dune, Frank Herbert drew inspiration from the nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, Zen Buddhism, and, perhaps less obviously, the mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus, described in Lesley Blanch’s 1960 novel, The Sabres of Paradise:

Anyone who has obsessed over the mythology of Dune will immediately recognize the language Herbert borrowed from Blanch’s work. Chakobsa, a Caucasian hunting language, becomes the language of a galactic diaspora in Herbert’s universe. Kanly, from a word for blood feud among the Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, signifies a vendetta between Dune’s great spacefaring dynasties. Kindjal, the personal weapon of the region’s Islamic warriors, becomes a knife favored by Herbert’s techno-aristocrats. As Blanch writes, “No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal.”

Herbert is ecumenical with his borrowing, lifting terminology and rituals from both sides of this obscure Central Asian conflict. When Paul Atreides, Dune’s youthful protagonist, is adopted by a desert tribe whose rituals and feuds bear a marked resemblance to the warrior culture of the Islamic Caucasus, he lives at the exotically named Sietch Tabr. Sietch and tabr are both words for camp borrowed from the Cossacks, the Czarist warrior caste who would become the great Christian antagonists of Shamyl’s Islamic holy warriors.

Herbert also lifted two of Dune’s most memorable lines directly from Blanch. While describing the Caucasians’ fondness for swordplay, Blanch writes, “To kill with the point lacked artistry.” In Dune, this becomes “[k]illing with the tip lacks artistry,” advice given to a young Paul Atreides by a loquacious weapons instructor. A Caucasian proverb recorded by Blanch transforms into a common desert aphorism. “Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills,” an apt saying for a mountain people, becomes “Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert” in Dune.

Dune’s narrative, however, owes more to The Sabres of Paradise than just terminology and customs. The story of a fiercely independent, religiously inspired people resisting an outside power is certainly not unique to the Caucasus, but Blanch’s influence can be found here, too. The name of Herbert’s major villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is redolent of Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, Imam Shamyl, the charismatic leader of Islamic resistance in the Caucasus, describes the Russian Czar as “Padishah” and his provincial governor as “Siridar,” titles that Herbert would later borrow for Dune’s galactic emperor and his military underlings.

There are even some interesting echoes of Blanch’s writing style and tendencies in Herbert’s book. Both authors traffic in evocative descriptions of stark, unforgiving landscapes and equally unforgiving peoples. And their shared tendency to describe their protagonists in raptor-like terms may not be a coincidence. (For Blanch, the Caucasus was a land of “eagle-faced warriors” and Imam Shamyl was possessed of “handsome eagle features.” Naturally, the Atreides are also notable for their “hawk features.”) Even Dune’s colors owe something to Blanch’s history. The banners of House Atreides are green and black. The first is, of course, the color of Islam and the second was adopted by Imam Shamyl’s Murids, holy Islamic warriors pledged to fight Russian imperialism to the death.

One of the biggest differences between the classics of SF&F and modern derivative works is that their authors borrowed from outside the genre:

Science fiction and fantasy have always been syncretic genres. The extravagant world-building that fires the imagination of so many readers would be nearly impossible if authors refused to seek inspiration in our own histories, religious traditions, and myths. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was famously inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. J. R. R. Tolkien’s background in medieval languages helped shape the mythology of Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s Dune is no different, and rediscovering one of the book’s most significant influences is a rewarding experience. At a time when our most popular science fiction sagas have been reduced to cannibalizing themselves, we would do well to celebrate genre pioneers who were more ambitious in their borrowing.

Van Allen Plexico interviews Jerry Pournelle at DragonCon

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Van Allen Plexico interviewed Jerry Pournelle (and Larry Niven) at the recent DragonCon.

Jerry Pournelle was an OR guy

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

Borepatch was right. Jerry Pournelle was quite the raconteur, as this interview with Leo Laporte from a few years ago demonstrates:

When he started talking about how the old Encyclopedia Britannica taught you how to do just about anything, I began to wonder if he was going where I thought he was going — and he was. (I grew up hearing a similar story…)

I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The New York Times provides this obituary for Jerry Pournelle:

When Dr. Pournelle was a boy the family moved to rural Tennessee, where the school he attended was small, to say the least.

“We had two grades to a room and four teachers for the whole eighth-grade school system,” he recalled in a 2013 interview.

But he supplemented the schoolhouse learning by reading the family Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dr. Pournelle, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill after serving in the Army during the Korean War, would eventually receive multiple degrees from the University of Washington.

He spent years working in the aerospace industry, including at Boeing, on projects including studying heat tolerance for astronauts and their spacesuits. This side of his career also found him working on projections related to military tactics and probabilities. One report in which he had a hand became a basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile defense system proposed by President Ronald Reagan. A study he edited in 1964 involved projecting Air Force missile technology needs for 1975.

“I once told Mr. Heinlein” — the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, an early mentor — “that once I got into advance plans at Boeing I probably wrote more science fiction than he did, and I didn’t have to put characters in mine,” Dr. Pournelle recalled in February in an interview with the podcaster Hank Garner.

[...]

Dr. Pournelle was an early adopter of personal computing. In 2011, when The Times published an article about an English professor, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, who was hunting for the first writer to have written a novel on a word processor, Dr. Pournelle argued that he deserved those bragging rights for the 1981 book “Oath of Fealty,” which he wrote with Mr. Niven.

[...]

Though Dr. Pournelle wore many hats, he had a license plate that focused on the storytelling side, Phillip Pournelle said; it read, SCIBARD.

In the 2003 interview, Dr. Pournelle mused about the art of the science fiction writer.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “we are not any different from the old storytellers, the old bards back in Bronze Age time who would go from campfire to campfire, and they’d see a warrior sitting there and say, ‘You fill my cup up with that wine you’ve got there and chop me a piece of that boar you’re roasting and I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!’ ”

Bulgaria with nuclear missiles

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

I had no idea that Steve Sailer was friends with Jerry Pournelle:

I didn’t meet Jerry until 1999, but I’d known his son Alex in high school. The Pournelle family asked me to go with them to Kansas City in August 1976 to the science-fiction convention at which Heinlein, the central American sci-fi writer of the 20th century, received his lifetime achievement award. (But I had to be at college that week.)

But Jerry, one of the great Southern California Cold Warriors, had a remarkable number of careers, starting as a teenage artillery officer during the Korean War, which deafened him in one ear. (At the lunch table, he’d choose his seat carefully to position his one remaining good ear next to his guest.)

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

[...]

Jerry once told me that if in early 1951 General MacArthur had said, “Boys, it’s time to clear out the nest of traitors in the White House. Who is going with me?” he would have been on the first flight to Washington with his hero.

After Korea, Pournelle went to West Point for a while, was a Communist briefly, and earned numerous advanced degrees in a variety of hard and soft subjects. He became an aerospace engineer at Boeing and several other companies and spent 1964 writing a Dr. Strangelove-style study for the Air Force on how a nuclear war would be fought in 1975.

He pored over satellite photos of the Soviet Union, counting the ratio of trucks to horse-drawn carts, eventually concluding that rather than the wave of the economic future, the U.S.S.R. represented “Bulgaria with nuclear missiles.” With his mentor, Viennese spymaster Stefan Possony of the Hoover Institution, Jerry wrote The Strategy of Technology, arguing that the way to win the Cold War was to turn it into a high-tech competition over who could innovate faster.

Read the whole thing.

Borepatch won the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party?” game

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

I didn’t realize that Borepatch had already won the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party?” game:

I met Jerry Pournelle in the spring of 1995 when I installed a firewall at Chaos Manor. He and Mrs. Pournelle could not have been more gracious — they actually took me out to dinner.

Sometimes people play the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party” game, imagining the great wits and deep thinkers of the past and who would make the liveliest evening. I haven’t thought I needed to play that game because of that dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Pournelle. He had an unbelievably interesting life and was a great storyteller, and she kept right up with him. So I’ve already lived that game. It was truly an evening to remember.

And it was done casually — just a brilliant but astonishingly normal couple, entirely lacking in pretension. Who quite politely ignored how star-struck I was. Actually, who kind of helped me get over my star-struckness.

You see, I had read his books back in high school, and even had a first edition of Lucifer’s Hammer. I thought about taking it out to ask him to sign it, but my dog Jack had chewed it pretty badly when he was a puppy, so I didn’t. I still think that The Mote In God’s Eye is the finest space opera ever written, but what I enjoyed the most was his monthly columns in Byte Magazine, A Step Farther Out. His Science Fact writing was even more exciting than his science fiction to me.

And so to the dinner conversation that evening. It was one of the most interesting dinner conversations I’ve had.

Rest in peace, Dr. Pournelle. Thanks for the dinner, but even more thanks for sparking the imagination.

Back from DragonCon with both a cold and the flu

Friday, September 8th, 2017

Earlier today I skimmed Jerry Pournelle‘s Chaos Manor, where he mentioned that he was back from DragonCon with both a cold and the flu:

Was supposed to go to the Mars Society meeting in Irvine, but I didn’t feel up to it and would have been a burden on Larry who generously offer to drive me. I suspected that would be sure exposure to this ConCrud and since he escaped it he doesn’t need it. But mostly I didn’t feel up to it. I’m still in pajamas. I type horribly as well. But that’s the way it goes. I did read all the mail and sort out a pile that needs answering.

[...]

More later I’m experiencing a wave of nausea.

Bye for now.

His son reported this sad news later:

I’m afraid that Jerry passed away. We had a great time at DragonCon. He did not suffer.

There is a page is for site visitors to post remembrances and thoughts.

I enjoyed Lucifer’s Hammer — which got me thinking about bootstrapping civilization — and The Mote in God’s Eye. I’ve been meaning to read There Will Be War.

The CIA, The Police, and Stewart Copeland

Friday, September 8th, 2017

Stewart Copeland may be best known as the drummer of The Police, but he’s also quite the raconteur, as this interview with Tim Ferriss demonstrates. His family history is surprisingly interesting.

SciFutures offers “corporate visioning”

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Hoping to distract himself from the boredom of his day job as the president of a market-research company, Ari Popper enrolled in a course on science-fiction writing at UCLA:

“It was, like, the best ten weeks of my life,” Popper told me recently. “But I knew I wasn’t going to pay the bills as a science-fiction writer.” Still, the course gave him an idea: since businesses often spend money trying to predict how the world will change, and since speculative fiction already traffics in such predictions, perhaps one could be put in service of the other — corporate consulting through sci-fi narratives. Soon, Popper quit his job, moved to a smaller house, and launched his own firm, SciFutures. Today, his network of a hundred or so authors writes customized stories for the likes of Visa, Ford, Pepsi, Samsung, and nato. Popper calls their work “corporate visioning.”

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged. The authors’ stories, she added, which range in length from a few hundred to several thousand words, are “not just marketing pieces, but sometimes we have to pull back or adjust to accommodate a brand.” She and Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters.

[...]

One of SciFutures’s more prominent contributors is Ken Liu, a Hugo Award-winning author and the translator of the popular Chinese science-fiction novel “The Three-Body Problem.” Liu told me that he relishes the level of influence that the firm offers. “As a freelancing gig, it’s not much money,” he said; typically, stories pay a few hundred dollars. “But you have the chance to shape and impact the development of a technology that matters to you. At a minimum, you know that your story will be read by an executive, somebody who’s actually able to decide whether to invest money and develop a product.” Liu dismissed the notion that writing science fiction for corporate clients compromised something essential about the genre. “I’m not a big fan of this vision of the artist as some independent, amazing force for good,” he said. “Everybody writes in a context for an audience.”

The audience that gives SciFutures writers the most freedom to imagine negative outcomes is, not surprisingly, the military. “Those stories can be grittier,” Phillips said. “They already do a lot of worst-case-scenario planning.” Last year, she and her colleagues produced thirteen stories that were read and discussed in a workshop for forty senior officials from a range of nato member countries. One involves a “smart gun” that gets hacked, nearly causing a massacre of civilians. Another, told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl in Uruguay, describes a group of child soldiers around the world who shoot targets through an online gaming site without realizing that the game is real: they are operating drones and other remote weapons that kill enemies of the Russian government. (Readers familiar with Orson Scott Card’s novel “Ender’s Game,” from 1985, may notice some similarities.) A third story follows a member of a Chinese “Fear Battalion,” a group of soldiers who have been genetically modified to emit a pheromone that induces terror in anyone who smells it.