Jerry Pournelle: Khaos in Chaos Manor

Jerry Pournelle’s MacBook Air — he calls it Khaos — is saving his sanity. Here’s why.

I’m writing this at the kitchen table on Khaos, my Apple MacBook Air. One set of workmen just left. They finally found the cracked and leaking six-inch section of gas pipe. This was their third attempt. Each previous time ended with supposed success — it was always This Time For Sure.

Chaos Manor has been sufficiently chaotic for the month. With luck it will all be over by Saturday.

In the meantime, one of us has to be downstairs while there are workmen in the house. That’s why I am working at the kitchen table here with my wonderful MacBook Air, which I’ve named Khaos after the Greek Goddess of Air. In case you were wondering.

I’d forgotten how nice the Air is for working. My normal work position involves a Henry Miller chair, keyboard at precisely the height I want and big monitor screens. I don’t have any of that at the kitchen table. But this is working out pretty well, unlike the situation here with the gas leak.

That’s why there’s been so much chaos at Chaos Manor lately. All would be well for a couple of hours and then we would smell gas. The first time was at 10 PM. The gas company technician, a very pleasant man who turned out to have kids who read science fiction, explained how to turn off the section where the leak was so the water heaters would still work. I gave him a copy of one of my books, Starswarm.

He couldn’t crawl under the house, he said, because he wasn’t allowed to do so without a partner and it was too late for that. Yesterday the contractors came out twice. Each time they thought they found it, but last night once again there was that smell of gas. This time they actually found a pipe with an actual crack in it, and replaced it. They’ve been gone for an hour, all the relevant valves are open, there’s heat in Roberta’s bathroom which was the whole point of the operation, and there is no smell of gas in the hallway. I believe we can at last rejoice. The moral of the story is that Roberta’s persistence in finding a reliable firm to do the work of fixing her bathroom heater has paid off in spades and big casino.

Now she’s out taking Sable for a walk, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table while the plasterer fixes our ornate dining room cornice, which was damaged by leaks from my upstairs bathroom, which had to be repaired and, well, you get the idea.

As for Khaos the MacBook Air, as I said, I’d forgotten how much I love it. It did take a bit of getting used to. First I set Khaos far enough back on the table so I could rest my arms on the table with my fingers properly on the keyboard. This felt strange at first, but after a few minutes it turned out to be natural.

Of course, the MacBook Air saved my sanity back when I was getting my brain burned out – 50,000 rads of high energy X-rays to eliminate the inoperable lump in my head. I was in the Kaiser Sunset radiology facility waiting room every day. I was able to work there and that’s about the only thing that kept me sane. Clearly the treatment worked since I am still here and they can’t find any traces of cancer left.

As for my situation now, definitely Khaos is a remarkably useful device. I don’t think it’s quite enough computer to be one’s only system, though. My main machine remains Bette, a quadcore Windows 7 machine with a 23-inch screen.

If I am going somewhere for days and I need a system to set up in the hotel room and leave it in place, I tend to carry an IBM ThinkPad. But for just knocking about writing wherever I happen to be, cruising the Internet as I need to, and just generally having a computer to use, the Air is wonderful. It is lightweight, gorgeous to look at, has great battery life — perfect to carry in a small briefcase or messenger bag.

And now, suddenly, all is well. The gas lines are fixed, the plasterer is done, Roberta is back from her walk, and I can go back up to the office. But I enjoyed resuming my affair with Khaos. She really is gorgeous. For some of my early impressions of the MacBook Air, see my column here.

Ed: The MacBook Air is one of our picks for the best tech in 2011.


  • Good to see you back writing. I missed your reading your posts for the last few months. So why stop using the Air? You can use with a large screen monitor and using a NAS on home network the small drive shouldn’t be an issue.
    I use a Macbook for development work at my office with an external hard drive and mouse. It gives me a two monitor system

  • Last year I exchanged his&her birthday presents with the lady of the house.

    She got a new 11″ MacBook Air to replace the “Dell From Hell” desktop system that occupied hours of my time every week. That Air is fantastic and it convinced me to go to SSD on the new Pro.

    I got a 20lbs Sledge Hammer.

    Good exchange.

  • Jerry,
    What is it about the MacBook Air that prevents it from being your main machine? Is it a technological problem that could be solved with better components such as a faster CPU? Or, is it physically impossible because your main machine would need to have a screen large enough that the Air would be… less airy? If it is because of the screen size, is it because the content of your work, say having two documents open side by side, demands the space? Or, is it because user the user interface, for example the Microsoft Ribbon, consumes too much of the screen that you need the extra space just to fit your work?

  • I use a Mac Mini with twin 27″ Thunderbolt displays as my main computer and a 15″ MacBook Pro with a 128GB SSD as my laptop. I am seriously thinking about replacing the MBP with a 15″ Air if they in fact come out in the Spring. My thought is that a 15″ Air with a 256GB SSD would be perfect, and I could dock it with the twin 27s as my main computer and then take it on the road when I need to travel. The only improvement on a 15″ Air with a 256GB SSD would be built in 3G connectivity like the iPad. WIth that combination, I could sell the Mac Mini, the 15″ MBP and my iPad2.

  • Speaking of the Mac Mini, a couple of stories up in Todd O’s Jurassic Tech, he talks about the Sinclair kit circa 1981. I am quoting him — “mini-er, but not mightier, than the MacBook Air.”
    Everything old is new again.

  • I’d love an Air; or some other lightweight thing. I’m lugging around a Dell Inspiron Tonnage (my name for it) — what was I thinking when I bought this gravity sink? It’s fine, just too heavy.

    But it sure is cheaper than a MacBook Air. My shoulder pays the price instead of my arm. Tradeoffs — I hate ’em.