Minimum Wage; Why I am a full time writer; China

View 812 Thursday, February 27, 2014


“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war.

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983



I am preparing more exposition on Ron Unz’s “Conservative case for higher minimum wages” with some very perceptive correspondence including an exchange with a very successful software engineer inventor entrepreneur in the heart of Silicon Valley, and a good account of effects in a Canadian province. I’ll have that later. I need to take a walk now before it gets too late.  I also have some good material including a Possony story on Taiwan and China.


Meanwhile, I wrote the following for a closed conference, and thought it might be of more general interest. It tells a story I have told before, of how a very strange experience – given the astronomical probabilities involved one might be justified in calling it miraculous. The conference is writers and the theme was “Do you write full time?” For some reason probably having to do with the steroid treatment I am in the middle of for my Sudden Hearing Loss, I found myself waxing, if not eloquently, then at length:


I have had no income other than writing since 1971 after the earthquake.  The Sylmar earthquake. I had 5000 books in the house. None of the book cases were fastened to the walls.  In the Los Angeles library there were so many books on the floor that the library was asking for volunteers to come reshelve them, not in any order, just get them off the floor so that docents could come reshelve them in order.

In my case one book was on the floor.  It was No Wonder We Are Losing, by former Senate Counsel Robert Morris.  A Cold War document, not precisely a tract, but a defense of congressional activity in the Cold War.  I thought, well, there’s a lesson there somewhere, and put it back on the shelf.  That was a Tuesday. The next day the phone rang at 0800.  Roberta was already gone –she was teaching and had the only real income, I having left the post of Director of Research for the City of Los Angeles, having previously left a professorship at Pepperdine, having prior to that left a fairly successful career in aerospace as the Apollo Project wound down and I had to give up an ideal job as a senior scientist to join management which I knew I’d be terrible at. Possony and I had written Strategy of Technology and it was fairly successful, and I had two action adventure novels published under a pen name, and did a bit of highly paid consulting for the Trustees of the California State College system and all of that was done, I’d given up: I was not going to make a living writing.  Haldeman and Erlichman had scotched the idea that I’d be an assistant secretary of either Defense or the Air Force in the Nixon administration although Strategy of Technology was already a textbook in the academy and war college, and I had friends in the r&d departments of the Army and Air Force; so I pulsed the system and asked for a civil service appointment in aviation operations research, my final title in aerospace being acting Director of operations research.  And lo! the Army Aviation people wanted me, and went to the Civil Service Commission which had to approve a lateral entry at GS 13 since I had never had a civil service job before. It was to be in St. Louis, and the papers were on my desk to be signed when the earthquake shook things up.  That was a Tuesday.

Wednesday morning the telephone rang at 0800. Roberta was not there, being out earning the money to pay the rent.  The kids were off to school.  I answered the phone.

"John Pournelle?"

At 0800 that was good enough.  "Yes."

"This is Robert Morris. Do you know who I am?"

I managed to recover enough composure to say, "Yes, oddly enough I was holding your book yesterday morning about this time."

He said, "Interesting. You had an earthquake in your city."

I admitted there had been one.

"Well, I am the publisher of Twin Circle, a National Catholic Press paper edited in Los Angeles, and I want you to do a short piece on the earthquake.  One picture if you have a good one that is illustrative, but mostly I want something scientifically correct, descriptive, compelling, and reassuring. It needs to be 700 words, and I’ll pay $400 dollars. Need it to be in the office of the editor in Century City by Friday Noon.  Can you do it?"

My house payment at the time was $210 a month. I’d made $22,000 a year in city hall, which was damned good money in 1972. I thought for about twenty microseconds and said "Sure."

So I did, and took the article down to Vince Ryan, the editor, in the Twin Circle offices in Century City, and he liked it, and invited me to lunch, and at lunch he said "We need a science correspondent.  Cover some science conferences, and do a weekly column on something interesting in science. It has to be interesting to the people who buy it in the back of the church, and it has to stand up to the inspection of Notre Dame Jesuit Professors of Physics and Medicine and such.  I hear you can do that.  Want to try? I can’t pay $400 a column. I’ll pay $200 a column and expenses if you need to travel. The AAAS annual meeting is coming up in Mexico City pretty soon.  We’ll pay expenses. I can use four pieces from that. Maybe in addition to regular column, maybe not, we’ll see how good you are."

Bottom line was that I put off St. Louis and the GS 13 for a couple of weeks, found I fit in nicely with Twin Circle as Science Correspondent, and I could do the column in a day, two tops, if I didn’t have a conference to go to, leaving me the rest of the week to work on fiction.  And $800 a month was pretty darned good money for a guy whose house payment was $200.  And I sold to Analog, and did a science article for Analog that I figured wouldn’t work for the Twin Circle readership, and Analog bought just about everything I sent in their direction, and — and I told St Louis thanks a lot and deep apologies for putting you through getting that Civil Service Commission vote in my favor, but I think the kids are used to California.  (And the Science Columnist for National Catholic Press had no problem getting his kids into the best Catholic school in Los Angeles, which beat holy hell out their prospects in St. Louis.)

And I’ve never done anything but write for a living since.  After MOTE IN GOD’S EYE and LUCIFER’S HAMMER I was making more out of fiction than Twin Circle was paying, but then I got on as the GALAXY science columnist, which gave me an interesting set of credentials for science conferences, GALAXY SF and NATIONAL CATHOLIC PRESS.  It was even good enough to get Niven a press pass to AAAS meetings, and we used to go to them together. I made enough to afford a $12,000 home computer ($6,000 for the Diablo typewriter that produced mss. and looked like they had been typed and couldn’t be told from typed mss. if you didn’t look too close at the edges of the paper).  And that led to an article about Writing with Computers which led to the BYTE column.

So for the last forty years of my life I haven’t earned any significant income except from writing.  Of course if I’d taken the GS-13 I’d have retired as GS-15 and have a heck of a good pension, but I haven’t done too badly — and eBooks have revived the economic value of the back list which is why I rail so much about not selling perpetual eBook rights whether exclusive or non-exclusive unless you’re getting paid royalties for every damned sale.

So that’s my one religious experience.  I mean, think about it.  I later asked Morris how he ever came to ask me to write for him.

It turned out he lived in New Jersey. Stefan Possony lived in Mountain View near Stanford (he was a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute) .  From New Jersey Stanford and Los Angeles don’t seem that far apart.  When he heard there was an earthquake in Los Angeles he called Possony to get an article from him.  Steve laughed and told him it was five hundred miles away.  "But I have a young man in Los Angeles, we wrote Strategy of Technology together–"  "Oh, yes, I have heard of that."  "Well, he is very familiar with such things, and he writes fast and well, and perhaps you can induce him to write this article for you. He will do it well."

So that’s a simple enough explanation of why Robert Morris called me the morning after the earthquake. Nothing mysterious about it. And he had no way of knowing that I was on the verge of giving up on writing for a living and about to sign the papers accepting the civil service GS-13 appointment but I really didn’t want to do that but it didn’t look like I had much choice in the matter, and this looked like a way out of that…  Big coincidence, but still within the realm of possibility.

But precisely how he managed to have his book be the only book out of thousands on my shelves fall to the floor the day before at this life crisis of mine is not so easily explained.  And that the post he would offer me was as science correspondent to the National Catholic Press was certainly interesting and then some. It certainly changed my life.

= = = = = = = = =

When I told this story to my old friend Marvin Minsky – who in contrast to his wife is a product of Ethical Culture and a pretty thorough atheist – he said coincidences happen because there are a lot of people in the world and a lot of days nothing like that happened to them, but then we began to look at the probabilities, and the improbabilities added up like crazy. When the numbers began to approach the age of the universe we stopped talking about it.

Oddly enough, in 1983 there was an earthquake in the Hollister-Coalinga are of California which affected the Bay Area including Mountain View where Possony lived.  He was by then in a wheel chair having had a stroke earlier, and by pure coincidence Roberta and I were in his house when it happened, having driven up for a computer conference of some kind, probably an Applefest but possibly not because the BYTE staff were in a motel not too far away. Anyway he was in his armchair and I was in his wheel chair so I could sit near him, and I suddenly found myself rolling across his floor.  Many of his books came down from the shelves in his study, but otherwise no damage there.  That one I call pure coincidence and it wasn’t at all improbable that I would be visiting him, nor that I would be in that area when there was a computer conference.  But of course almost all his books fell down. In my case where the shelves swayed two feet out of line from the walls, only one book fell down, and that was Morris.  Different probabilities altogether.


I will continue the minimum wage discussion in a MAIL I will post tonight.


Blood sugar last night before bed was 318, so in compliance with my internist’s instructions I took and extra metformin before going to bed. This morning before breakfast it was 125. It is now 1615, and I am about to take it having had lunch at 1300 along with a metformin and six steroid tablets. Ah, It is now 168. I had no breakfast – got up too late – and a salmon and lettuce sandwich for lunch. No exercise yet but I hope to get out for a half hour in a few minutes. Logging this now. No hearing improvement whatever, if anything a deterioration in the right ear which is terrifying.

Went to LASFS meeting after dinner. Dinner was soup. Was enticed by a slice of pizza at LASFS.  Home at 2050 (long program by Aldo Spidoni on an art history of the manned space program after Shuttle, excellent) and it is now 240.  Took a metformin at 1840 with dinner, will take another with my night time pills when I go to bed.  We’ll see what it is in the morning.

The batteries ran out on my hearing aids while at LASFS in the middle of the program.  The right one gave the warning tones just as I got there at 1920, and about 2130 expired.  I took the battery out of the useless left aid – ear still stone deaf – and put it in the right one, and it donged the low battery signal but lasted through the meeting and indeed until I got to my doorstep before it died.  I have replaced both batteries and the right ear hears fine. Left nothing not even when I scratch the sound input spot or send it gong signals.  The steroid treatment lasts three weeks.


Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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