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Quiet Gratitude

February 15, 1999
by Zac Belado

I'm not given to hero worship. I don't know what it is about my particular emotional makeup but I have never been prone to idolizing or purposefully emulating others. I have always been of the impression that we are distinct not only in character but also in circumstance.

A friend of mine was telling me one day how he tried to live his life like Winston Churchill. An admirable goal perhaps but I always wonder about the inherent futility of such an action. Churchill was an influential, and rich, member of the British ruling class and as such had access to opportunities that people the likes of my friend will never have. What is the point, I might have said, of making goals that will lead to failure not because of any factor for which you have control? Churchill was able to achieve his fame and reach his goals as much by his own drive and fire as by the accident of his birth.

More recently, a local television station was running a contest for teens in which they offered, as inducement to take pen to hand and write an essay, the opportunity to have lunch with the winner's hero. As suitable heroes they offered local television personalities and business leaders. My initial reaction was that they were rather poor examples of heroes and this caused me to think back to my teen years and try to think of who my heroes were. And I couldn't think of any. Then I tried to just think of a person, or persons, who at any point of my life, could have been labeled as a hero. Again a blank.

Quiet revelations

The intro to one of my previous articles contained a reference to Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column. For those of you not familiar with it, Mr. Pournelle wrote (wrote in the past tense because the magazine folded recently) a column for Byte magazine that discussed his continuing experiences (often apocalyptic in the extreme) with various pieces of PC hardware, his thoughts about life, the books he was reading and the games he was playing. It was, and still is as the column survives the magazine by moving to the web, a free form monologue by a man who just wanted to share his experiences with the world. I'm not sure how he initially got the column from Byte but I am certainly glad that he did.

Byte magazine was the computer geeks equivalent of Scientific American. Unlike magazines like Creative Computing (and if that doesn't date me nothing will!) Byte was a serious journal that didn't shy away from topics that would have had a narrow audience. But that wasn't the real reason I read the magazine; Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column was.

Initially I thought that the man was cursed. If there was ever a digital incarnation of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner it was Jerry Pournelle. Drivers would always conflict, drives would always fail, and motherboards would always have that one faulty component. He chronicled his journey with that same silicon albatross we all have to deal with and did it with such an outward calm.

Mr. Pournelle also got to play with all the really keen pieces of equipment that I wanted to. While I didn't grow up impoverished, my parents were certainly not capable of providing me with the computer and peripherals I craved. Thus, the monthly Chaos Manor articles were a guilty excursion into a world I yearned for but couldn't obtain. He had numerous machines, all the latest software and best of all the skill to bring all of that to me through a few simple, yet skillfully crafted, words.

After dwelling on all this I took a few minutes to flip through some older Byte magazines and re-read some of his columns. And I got quite a shock.

With a few exceptions, I haven't read many of his Chaos Manor columns in quite some time. Byte magazine become less of an "always buy" and more of an airplane read; a magazine I always grabbed when waiting for a flight as I was always assured of at least one good read in it. So rereading his older work, and the latest columns from his website, proved quite conclusively that we all have heroes, we just don't often know it.

Anyone familiar with Mr. Pournelle's columns will notice that my "Moving the digital homestead" article is, in my own defense, "the sincerest form of flattery". It seems that while reading all those columns, and enjoying his writing, I created an internal impression of what the definitive computer writer was like. So, it makes sense that when I endeavored along that path myself that I took his work as a template by which to base my own writings.

And he is, at least for me, an unusual hero. We hold very few of the same political opinions (his initial comments in this month's column are a case in point), have very different views of the role of the military and I'm not really all that familiar with his other writing (with the exception of the ever excellent work he co-authored with Larry Niven). But he managed not only to summarize how I thought computers should be written about, but he also managed to help form my opinions about them. How I approach using computers is in very large part due to his writings. He showed me how to include them in your life in a way that helped to make your life better without dehumanizing it.

Sometime the best heroes are the ones you weren't aware you even had.

So it is with great affection that I end my article thusly. Those of you who miss the references are directed to view Mr. Pournelle's latest article on his website.

The book of the month is The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris, published by Touchstone Books. It's a comprehensive look at the history and current state of cosmological theory. The second book of the month is Echoes of Honor by David Weber. Fans of space opera will find that Weber's Honor Harrington series is perhaps the best science fiction series to be written in some time.

The game of the month is, with no qualifications, Baldurs Gate published by Sierra Software and developed by Bioware. This is AD&D finally done right.

Thanks Jerry.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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