“We have an unusual request about this week’s security bulletins release. If you have the time can you talk to someone on the phone?” This was from my Waggener Edstrom liaison.
It was 2004 and I would get these requests often in my part time role as communications person for Microsoft’s Security Response Center. The PR team and I would weigh who the request came from, their audience, and several other factors in deciding who we would get on the phone with as opposed to responding in email. Not for spin or positioning purposes, (you can’t really spin a security vulnerability although many have tried. They tried and failed? No. They tried and died) but more use of time vs. how many people would be reached.
“Sure.” I said. “What’s the outlet?”
Waggener Edstrom has served as the major PR firm for Microsoft for such a long time. There’s a reason for that, they are whip smart and I knew that if they were asking for my phone time it was worth doing.
“It’s a gentleman who runs a fairly well-subscribed newsletter, he’s written for Byte and a lot of other publications back in the day. His questions are mostly technical about the attack vector, it seems like a good place to get any additional information out.”
It was a slow day for me, a Thursday as I recall and our monthly release had happened that Tuesday so most of the pressing outlets like CNN or the LAtimes/Boston Globe/NYT gamut or Wired or whatever had already had their calls with me, so I said sure let me set up a 30 minute block of time and give me five minutes prep for us to decide whether or not to do this or over email.
I stupidly never asked who the gentleman was who I would be talking to.
Ok prep for the call time. I’m in my office which back then was decorated in what my Wagg Ed support team referred to as “affluent freshman college dorm room” style. I had cool lava lamps and a projector with a liquid oil pattern cast on the wall, blacklights, a nice futon etc. Meetings all over the MSRC were sometimes held in my office just because. Once, our fearless leader kicked me out of my own office to have a meeting, but that was before we started pranking his office with greek architecture. I digress.
I picked up the phone for the prep, keep in mind my role here in my life was directly communicate guidance for Microsoft customers in regards to security threats and vulnerabilities and patches. We’re 60 seconds into the prep discussion when I finally open the newsletter and look at the web page and find out the caller is going to be
Jerry. Fucking. Pournelle.
*record scratch* *narrator voice* This is me, you may be wondering how I got here.
Well let’s start with The Mote in God’s Eye. The Niven and Pournelle team-up was formative for me because their voices were so interesting individually, but that story meshes so seamlessly (unlike say a Peter Straub/ Stephen King mashup which worked so brilliantly *because* of the slight tonal discord) that it made me seek out all of Pournelle’s other work. I had already consumed Niven’s.
“We’re taking this call” I blurted. “We are taking this fucking call. We are sooooo taking this call.”
I think I freaked the PR team out a little bit.
So now I’m 60 seconds away from speaking to Jerry. Fucking. Pournelle. In some random space in my life where his interests and my role collided and neither had anything to do with the fact I was a huge fan. I knew about his newsletter and website and his interest in computers and tech, I just had no idea *that* was the person I was going to talk to. And now it was my job.
Be cool man. Be cool.
Now I’m on the phone with him. He asks how I am and how my day is. I managed somehow to hold it together and chat like all this was perfectly normal but I didn’t trust myself to not screw it all up so I just said “before we get to your questions, if I may, your fiction has been a huge influence on me. I’m a fan and I’m a little weirded out that I’m talking to you”
I know that’s what I said, verbatim, because I had it typed in notepad to read from so I would not screw it up.
He laughed and spent like the next two minutes just sort of shooting the shit with me. Then he delved into his questions which were clearly from someone who wasn’t just a hobbyist, he understood the ins and outs of the threat and he wanted to articulate why applying the updates was important in the newsletter.
At one point I got bold. I said, “Well on the one hand the attacker could do X but on the gripping hand the patch does Y.”
He stopped me. “If I were to use that, there would be three elements, with the “on the gripping hand” being always the third. That’s how moties work. It helps see past a binary choice!”
I still use this today. I say things often like so: “On the one hand X, on the other hand Y. But on the Gripping hand….” and when it gets spotted by people for the reference I usually get an email or nod to the effect “I got what ya did there” and when people are confused I get to explain it and introduce them to The Mote in God’s Eye.
I have Jerry to thank for that. The call was simple and perfunctory, we got his questions answered, he was gracious and kind with my fanboyism. But that moment where he took an element of such a foundational influence that he and Niven had written and riffed it as “No no no say it like this, and people will get it” was one of those moments in my life where I was flummoxed and not at the same time, and won’t ever forget.
We never spoke again, I cannot claim to have known him or that we were Facebook friends or anything. I doubt he would have even recalled the conversation within a month or two of it just because he probably had lots of conversations like that with people.
I am just one more of millions affected by his work in some way saying, thanks Jerry. Thanks for the stories.