Sunday, August 12, 2018


The last time I met Douglas Adams was on the morning of 26th April 2001, in the mezzanine lobby of the One Aldwych Hotel in London. I had not seen him since he moved to Santa Barbara to adapt a screenplay from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for Disney. American lifestyle had taken its toll, and he attempted to disguise the extra pounds with two-tone attire: white shirt and black trousers. His hair was closely cropped and white. He blended in faultlessly with his surroundings. “How can I help,” he smiled.

“Coltan,” I said, “an entirely new threat to the gorillas. The mining of it in eastern Congo is driving the Eastern lowland gorilla to extinction. Apparently it’s processed into tantalum, which is indispensable to mobile phones and computers.”

“So now the tech industry’s the bad guy,” sighed Douglas. He sat back and crossed his imposing limbs.“Talk to Nokia,” he said, “they’re the industry leaders in mobile phones. And see if you can’t get an article into Wired about it. Ask John Perry Barlow to pen something.”

“I’m writing an appeal,” I said, “to send to all the companies involved.” 

“Not an appeal,” he said, gazing up at a pair of azalea bushes hanging above his head, “write your letter to inform, ask them to take the initiative. And make sure you send me a copy of the draft before you circulate it.”

Following his counsel to the full, I then sent an open letter to the tantalum industry, which sparked an upswell of public support for the gorillas, and launched a campaign led by Arthur C. Clarke and Leonardo DiCaprio that resulted in new legislation in the United States. 

But I never saw Douglas again. Two weeks later, while working out at a gym in Santa Barbara his heart stopped beating and he died instantly. He was only 49. I was in San Francisco when I heard the terrible news. We were scheduled to meet up that week. The loss was too great for words. As well as my friend, my patron, and my mentor, Douglas was the gorillas’ best hope.

Five days later I was with Mike Backes in LA when we heard his funeral was going to be held that afternoon. “Let’s go,” said Mike.

“But we weren’t invited,” I said.

“So what, let’s drive down there anyway.”

“We won’t make it in time. The service starts in less than an hour, in Santa Barbara, which is at least 90 minutes drive away.”
“We’ll take the Porsche,” said Mike. 

We made it in 45 minutes, crept in and stood at the back of chapel. An organist was playing The Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ Douglas’s coffin seemed to stretch from wall to wall. How did they find a tree tall enough?

Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender (he once climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit to raise money to fight the cretinous trade in rhino horn), Apple Computer has lost its most eloquent apologist. And I have lost an irreplaceable intellectual companion and one of the kindest and funniest men I ever met. 
- Richard Dawkins, obituary for Douglas Adams, The Guardian 

“Douglas Noel Adams, 1952-2001” read the invitation I received 4 months later, to the memorial service at St Martin’s in the Field, London. Everyone came to bid a final farewell to DNA. The ushers collected donations for rhinos and gorillas. Following the service, a group of his friends walked through Leicester Square together, to attend his wake at the Groucho Club in Soho. I was proud to walk among them. 

At the Groucho Club I worked the room, Douglas wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, chatted to Peter Gabriel, another AppleMaster whom Douglas had recruited to the cause. It was our first time meeting, though I’d been a fan of his music since high school. “You’re not going to like me,” said Gabriel in a raspy voice. “I’ve had a bonobo in my studio playing keyboards.”

“You’re kidding me,” I laughed.
Peter Gabriel

“No, it’s true. The bonobo speaks sign language and has an extensive vocabulary. So we asked her to come to my studio and play the piano. We had to bribe her with Jell-O, but she played pretty well."

“Can’t wait to hear what that sounds like,” I said.

“What do you think about gorillas communicating with each other using video conferencing?” asked Gabriel. “Putting monitors in their habitat to see if they make contact with each other.”

“The equipment would have to be ruggedized to withstand a hell of a beating,” I said. I then told him about the Media Lab’s idea of making a hologram of a silverback. 

I found Storm Thorgerson talking to his Pink Floyd mates, asked him if he’d design our annual report. “Go on, Storm," said Dave Gilmour, "design their annual report."

Dave Gilmour
"If I did design it," said Storm with bored contempt, "there'll be no fucking gorillas in it."

"No gorillas," I laughed, “I don’t get it.”

“Maybe a hand print or two, but that's all.”


”For the sad fact that there are far too few left in the wild,“ said Storm. 

Bringing to a close this tribute as tall, aged, and deeply fissured as an old-growth Douglas Fir, while Pink Floyd sings, “Wish You Were Here,” I can see Douglas’s congenial full moon face, amused no doubt by some scientific absurdity. So much has happened in the 40 years since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first hit the airwaves, and yet the wit is still fresh. I wonder how, after so long away, such an avowed atheist as Douglas can still make his presence felt. Welcome back, old friend. I’ve missed you. It’s twenty years on, but your plan for a once-and-for-all fund to save the gorillas is no less compelling. $35 million is chump change for today’s tech titans. Surely one of them will read this story and step up with the cash needed to guarantee the survival of a species of great ape. “A bargain at the price!” says Douglas.

In loving memory my friend and mentor, Douglas Adams, the coolest dude in the Universe

Sunday, August 5, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 11 - Baby You’re A Rich Man

The celebrity car boot sale was an unqualified success. Among the many beautiful gifts donated were Richard Dawkins’s complete works signed, an illustrated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also signed, and a varicoloured Senegalese vest that Youssou N’Dour had given to Peter Gabriel when they toured together. But the item that fetched the highest price was an artwork painted by Sir Paul McCartney called ‘Lucy In The Sky with Puppies’, which sold for $7,500. 

Sir Paul was so delighted by this that he told his assistant Shelagh Jones to write to me asking how he could further help the cause. I suggested he host a benefit lunch for the gorillas at his office in Soho Square, invite the titans of the tech industry. Sir Paul agreed. The event was scheduled for June 16th 1999. We were back in business. 

Shelagh Jones gave me a tour of the venue, a stately wood-paneled dining room on the second floor of MPL Communications, where Sir Paul kept his psychedelically painted piano from Sgt. Pepper’s. “He’s suggested doing a sing-song after lunch,” said Jones. 

MPL Communications, Soho Square
Although the McCartneys had by then made several donations to the cause, I had yet to meet Linda and Paul in person. I was thrilled by the prospect. However, Shelagh informed me that Paul could not retain information for more than 24 hours. “So, if you want him to do our bidding with the billionaires,” she smiled, “you’ll have to forgo meeting him until the day before the lunch.”

I sent invitations out to every one of the 800lb gorillas from the tech industry that I’d come into contact with while setting up the endowment appeal, asking them to attend an exclusive lunch with Sir Paul to talk about saving a species. While Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison were both keen, Paul Allen was prevaricating. 

Then Shelagh called to say Ringo Starr had also agreed to join the luncheon. I sent Douglas the news, he immediately replied: 

That’s very good news indeed. Two Beatles together make it a hugely unique special occasion, and I’m sure you could then broaden your range of targets. My guess is that if you invite SJ and LE and whoever else, you will probably call PA’s bluff. How could he not want to be there? But now what about Ted Turner and Jane Fonda? What about Steven Spielberg? What about Michael Eisner?
- Email from Douglas Adams to Greg Cummings

Over the next two months, Jobs and Ellison would drop out of the event due to conflicting schedules, but Paul Allen confirmed he was coming. Reportedly worth $30 billion at the time, we felt confident our singular guest would make a handsome donation. 

But we hadn’t banked on Ringo. With just six days to got before the event, Shelagh Jones called again. “Before he agrees to participate, Ringo wants to know how much Paul Allen’s going to give.”

My heart raced. Alarm bells began to peal. In desperation, I sent off a cluster of emails to the highest levels. “What, the Beatles are the door prize?” asked Mike Backes. Nathan Myhrvold sent a more considered response:

I am not sure what to say, One fairly obvious point is to double and triple check that Paul McCartney isn’t going to flake on you at the last minute for the same reason. That would be a disaster.

I have no idea what Paul [Allen]’s expectations are. My belief, based on what you have told me so far is that the lunch is about making the ask, and that this was not a done deal. If I think that, my guess is that Paul Allen thinks that too, unless you have described things very differently to him.

You can’t very well demand the donation up front if that isn’t what Paul is expecting. Even broaching the topic could be very off-putting. Note that I am not speaking for Paul, maybe he would not feel that way, but I sure would, and I think most people would.

Paul knowing that Larry won’t be there may be a good sign, but don’t be presumptive. What if Paul is thinking of donating say $5 million? This would be a very generous gift by any absolute standard, even if it is less than you want. But maybe he is thinking about doing the whole thing. At this stage you pretty much have to go through with it.

The mix up with Ringo is very awkward, and very odd. If lunch with the Beatles was a $100,000 a plate fund raising luncheon, then it is proper to make it prepaid. But this isn’t that sort of thing - you don’t typically have a $30 million a plate fundraising luncheons. At this level of philanthropy it would be odd to ‘and, if you make the donation you get lunch with the Beatles.’

The main saving grace is that Ringo is the least important of the Beatles - McCartney is still a good draw!

If McCartney does not have to personally make the ask, but at the very least I would hope that he says how important it is that the gorillas be saved etc, and then you make the ask.

If you show your film, and make a presentation on the overall programe, you might not need to literally ask. But, then again, you may well have to.

One minor point is that it would be awkward if McCartney congratulates him on the donation before it is clear that he has made it.

I am not sure what else to say other than good luck!
- Email from Nathan Myhrvold to Greg Cummings

In the end McCartney did flake, got behind Starr’s malapropos demand. My hand was forced; I wrote to Paul Allen explaining that an eleventh-hour hiccup had occurred. “Sir Paul and Ringo are keen to meet you but have asked that there be a confirmation of a donation first. I know this is very unconventional and certainly not what you were led to believe would transpire at this luncheon. My only hope is that you understand our predicament and agree to proffer an idea of what you would like to donate. Subsequently, the lunch will go ahead as planned and we can launch our $35 million endowment for the endangered mountain gorillas. Generations will thank you for it.” 

Allen replied simply, “What?”, which then dealt the coup de gras to our endowment appeal.

I sat on a park bench at the summit of Primrose Hill between a trio of Rowan-whitebeam cross trees. The air bristled with the freshness of Spring. A strong wind blew, rustling through the newborn leaves. Still, Mother Nature’s soothing hush tones weren’t enough to keep me from sobbing. The bottom of my world had just dropped out. 

Looking down at the mock-up animal habitats in Regent’s Park Zoo, I wondered, “Is this what the future holds for the gorillas?” I reached over the top of my head with my right arm and stroked the left side of my face, like a gorilla might do, wiped the tears away. It was comforting. No question, I’d let the big fellas down. Handing in my resignation would have been the honourable thing to do but I stayed on.

It was the turn of the millennium, a new century. The Dot Com bubble burst. PlayStation 2 and GameBox were released. The first resident crew entered the International Space Station. A new generation of spaceborne imaging radar was launched on Endeavour, creating the elevation models that are today used in geographic information systems. 

Much good came from of our quest for a $35 million endowment. We had a bunch of great new patrons, including Douglas Adams, Mike Backes, Richard Dawkins, Nathan Myhrvold, and Michael Crichton. And we had Apple sponsorship. In May 2000, I was interviewed by Apple Hot News about how we were using the donated equipment:

This is where Apple technology can really help,” Cummings says. “A few weeks ago, I sent an email through my wireless modem on the PowerBook while I was sitting at the foot of the volcanoes in Uganda. I spoke to my communications consultant in London from within the park, not 20 minutes after sitting with the gorillas. We can do miracles with our Apple technology. Can you imagine? We can post digital images through the GSM connection after witnessing a gorilla birth. The possibilities are endless.
- Apple Hot News, May 2000

Imagine where the gorillas would be today if our endowment appeal had been successful, the standard of innovation in conservation we would be enjoying by now. We’d have real time gorilla trekking in their habitats using VR, GorillaCams in the forest monitoring their conservation, thermal cameras to trigger automated alerts for rangers when suspected poachers cross into parks, haptic devices leading gorillas down the path of least resistance, and a high-tech gorilla conservation centre featuring an exhibit of silverback holograms. Most importantly, we’d have peace of mind. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 10 - Oh No, Mr Bill!

Timing is everything… On the same day as our meeting with Bill Sr at the Edgewater, a Congolese army major broadcast the following message from a radio station in eastern Congo: “People must bring a machete, a spear, an arrow, a hoe, spades, rakes, nails, truncheons, electric irons, barbed wire, stones, and the like, in order, dear listeners, to kill the Rwandan Tutsis.” 

All hell had broken loose, again. The Second Congo War, a.k.a. the Great War of Africa had begun. It was to become the deadliest war in modern African history, directly involving 8 African nations, and 25 armed groups. Who would invest in such a place? We could not have picked a worse time to appeal to the Gates Foundation.

War wasn’t the only thing working against us. That month the US Justice Department summoned Bill Jr to the United States vs Microsoft anti-trust trial. News broadcasts throughout August, when not saturated by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, showed images of the grizzly massacres in the Congo and Bill Jr under visible duress, rocking back and forth in his chair as he gave his deposition to the Justice Department.

Barely a week after Jillian and I returned home from California, we got the news we’d been waiting for. It was a letter from Bill Gates Sr, citing the political uncertainty of the region combined with the “multiplicity of the agencies working in this area,” (I never did figure out what he meant by that) as the foundation’s reasons not to support this effort at this time.

I conveyed the sad news to a stone-faced gathering of our field staff, who’d come to London for a week of strategy meetings. “We did our best,” I said, swallowing hard, “gave this appeal its best possible chance of success. It couldn’t have helped that civil war broke out in Congo just as Gates was making his decision, but this is the very nature of the beast and the reason why a privately funded endowment is the only way to ensure mountain gorillas survive.”

It was late afternoon on the last day our meetings. My African colleagues were ready to fly home. We were drinking pints of lager at a long wooden table at the Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill. No one was saying much. It was a dark day for the gorillas. Just then a gleaming blue Porsche 911 pulled up outside, engines roaring, and a giant man emerged, strode through the pub door. It was Douglas Adams. He had come to join us for a farewell drink.

We embraced. “Thank you for all your help in trying to make this work for the gorillas,” I said. “We’ve not yet given up hope.”

Douglas, determined to put a positive slant on things, suggested we might have to break the endowment down into more manageable chunks of money. I introduced him to my African colleagues. For the next hour he entertained them with anecdotes of when he was traveling the world in search of endangered species, writing Last Chance To See. Evident by their hysterics, they all knew the story of the obfuscating Zairian border official. 

Douglas trying to figure out a trick with corks 
Douglas wore his heart on his sleeve and when an idea struck him, he could get quite animated about it. Often he would call me up at the office to relate some new notion he had about gorillas. One time he called to ask what I thought of the aquatic ape theory, the idea that the ancestors of modern humans were more inclined to wade in water than other great apes. I told him I thought it was a distraction from the real issues. That was me, a one-topic dilettante who only felt confident discussing subjects I had previously researched. At least I knew my gorilla shit.

“What about a celebrity car boot sale?” asked Douglas. “I’ll invite my friends to donate some eclectic junk, and we’ll auction it to the highest bidder, online, for the gorillas, get e-Bay to feature the auction.”

“Bloody good idea,” I said.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 9 - Hello, (again) continued

“Hello, (again)” proclaimed a giant blue inflatable computer wobbling in the warm California breeze that swept across the grounds of the Apple Corporation. The company had just rolled out its first iMac. Whether stimulated by the promise of a brighter future or the free beer, staffers seemed to have gotten their mojo back.

We’d come to see Kanwal Sharma, who ran AppleMasters, to discuss a further donation of equipment. He hadn’t given us any prior warning that our visit would coincide with such a major product launch. “Come,” said Sharma, “I’ll introduce you to my boss.” 
With Kanwal Sharma at Apple, Cupertino, CA

Standing next to the big inflatable iMac, coolly drinking beer from a plastic cup, was Apple’s newly reinstated CEO, Steve Jobs. After we were introduced, I pitched him the gorillas. He was inattentive and punctuated each of my points with a dismissive, “cool,” like how other people say, “fuck off.” I saw straight away that my passion had no traction with him.

Jon Rubinstein, on the other hand, was quite interested in what we had to say, and asked about trekking gorillas in the wild. Getting the senior vice president of hardware engineering on our side was key. Next to him stood Jonathan Ive, the company’s thirty one year-old British designer. The iMac was his baby - the first in a range of stunningly innovative products he would design for Apple over the coming decade, including the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He was wearing a blue silk shirt identical in colour to the iMac. “How did you manage to find a shirt exactly the same colour?” asked Jillian.

“Other way around,” laughed Ives. “I bought the shirt on Bondi Beach, and then used it as the swatch for iMac’s translucent shell, called it Bondi Blue.”

“Cool!” I said. 


Next stop, Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, to meet Kevin Lima and Chris Buck, directors of the new Tarzan animated film. They gave us a tour of the “set”: a hive of animation cells connected by corridors decorated with large images of the story’s main characters. Every frame of the movie was drawn in one of those cells, by an animator on an easel. The image would then be scanned and, with massive rendering power, made to run in sequence. 

Jillian and I (centre) at Disney Animation, Burbank, CA, with Chris Buck and Kevin Lima
Buck and Lima recounted the exhaustive research the team had undertaken to prepare for animating gorillas: attended lectures on primates, made trips to zoos, witnessed a gorilla dissection to learn about its musculature, even visited Bwindi in Uganda to observe mountain gorillas in the wild and gather inspiration for the setting. The movie’s sweeping 3D backgrounds were breathtakingly similar to the real thing. This required a rendering technique known as Deep Canvas, software that keeps track of brushstrokes applied in 3D space.

We asked them if the gorillas might be the beneficiary of Tarzan’s premiere. They agreed to consider it, but in the end gave the premiere to LA Zoo. 

Dinner at Emelio's, Santa Barbara, CA. (From left to right) Berkeley Breathed, Jillian Miller, Savannah Brentnal, Kai Krause, the author, Mike Backes, Douglas Adams, and Jody Boyman
In the restaurant at the end of our journey, a hero’s welcome awaited us. Gathered in a bistro on the Santa Barbara waterfront for a feast in our honour were Kai Krause, Savanah Brentnall, Jody Bowman, Berkeley Breathed, and Douglas Adams. Mike Backes arrived late in his gold Porsche 928 which he’d driven down from LA. Jillian and I regaled them with thrilling tales of our Pacific Coast journey, how we’d sealed the deal on the Gates appeal, and pitched some of the most influential people in tech. “Timing is everything,” I said. “I mean, to have shown up on the day they launched the iMac. It didn’t take much to get them to agree to a further donation of stuff.” 

Douglas, who was befuddled by a magic trick that Mike had shown him, looked up and beamed proudly. “How many AppleMasters do you now have as supporters?” he asked. 

“Eight,” I said.

“That must constitute an orchard,” said Backes.

Mike Backes, Los Angeles, CA, 1997

Sunday, July 15, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 8 - Hello, (again)

I directed and edited a short documentary for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. I shot it with my pal Brian Callier on a Sony digital video camera in Sri Lanka and England. We interviewed AppleMasters Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams, as well as Arthur C. Clarke. Back in L.A. using FireWire and a Radius Moto DV card, I downloaded the pristine digital video directly to my Power Macintosh hard drive. Then, using EditDV from Radius, I edited the video. This setup was unbelievably cool. I just plugged in the PCI card, attached a cable to the camera, booted the software, and I could move the video into my Mac. We got some footage of gorillas that fellow AppleMaster John Perry Barlow helped us shoot during his recent trip to Uganda. The gorilla clips were pretty short, so we just converted them to slow-motion with Edit DV. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd let us use some of their music, so we digitized it with SoundEdit and slapped it on the gorilla footage. Simple and fun. 
- Mike Backes’s AppleMasters page

An abridged copy of the Endowment Proposal
In February 1998, I hand delivered our appeal package to Nathan Myhrvold in Redmond. It contained Mike Backes’s film Time to Act, a high-res copy of the radar image of the gorilla habitat acquired by the space shuttle Endeavour, and an elegantly bound, 50-page business plan. Our proposal, how $35 million would guarantee the survival of the endangered Mountain gorilla, was well-grounded and lock-tight. 

Next stop Monterey, where the Technology Engineering, and Design conference was underway. TED8 attracted a clique of well-heeled geeks. Tickets went for $2,000 a piece and had sold out in a day. German software designer Kai Krause helped me gate-crash the event. On Saturday, in the simulcast room, following a showing of David Tate’s film about the Pathfinder mission to Mars, they premiered Time to Act. I reckon it had a deliberate audience of about 60 people, including Luis Rossetto, co-founder of Wired. I got five minutes with Larry Ellison, head of Oracle Corp, gave him copies of the film and business plan. Very warm response. I even gate-crashed the “billionaires dinner”, doorstepped Jeff Bezos on a street corner afterward. “My wife handles all our charitable donations,” he said. 

“Does your wife like wildlife?” I asked, as he tried to flag a taxi. 

“She likes jazz,” he said.

Titans of the tech industry we're starting to take notice of our cause, to hear about our endowment appeal. The gorillas were due their day. 

In Berkley with Jane Metcalf, co-founder of WIRED magazine

Jillian with Louis Rossetto, co-founder of WIRED magazine

After four months of being arm twisted, Bill Gates finally asked his father, who was then director of his foundation, to look "into the Gorilla donation in more detail." 

I began corresponding with the dad, Bill Gates Sr. His main areas of concern were the gorilla range state governments. “What can you to tell us about the geography and politics? What countries are involved? What action is necessary on those countries parts to effect your program? What is going on that indicates, one way or the other, that they will co-operate?”

After consulting my gorilla gurus, I sent Bill Sr a comprehensive response to his questions and then pressed him for a face-to-face meeting. I also suggested the fully wired conservation centre we planned to build be named William H. Gates III Conservation Centre. Finally, an email arrived from Suzanne Cluette, assistant director at the Foundation: “Mr Gates has asked that I respond to your request for a meeting in Seattle. We would be pleased to meet with you.” 

Jillian joined me on this trip. We planned to drive down on the Pacific Coast Highway, through Big Sur, and rendezvous with Douglas Adams in Santa Barbara. First stop, Seattle, the lobby of Edgewater, at 9 am on August 12th, for our meeting with the William H. Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates Sr
We sat on soft chairs beneath the balustrade. Elliott Bay was scintillating in the background. Bill Sr, a leggy man in his sixties, had dressed in blue check shirt sleeves and chinos. Suzanne Cluett, a not-for-profit veteran with hands-on experience in the developing world, asked most of the questions,. Bill Sr listened intently to our answers with eyes closed. A hotel cleaner was pushing a vacuum cleaner with the most deafening whine back and forth on the balustrade above. Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation gave us 90 minutes and Jillian and I gave the pitch of our lifetimes.

“We will consider it,” said Bill Sr, shaking Jillian’s hand and mine, “and let you know as soon as possible.”

After they’d left, we high-fived each other. “You know, Led Zeppelin once played footie in this lobby,” I said.

“Really?” she laughed.

“Oh yeah, baby, this is hallowed ground.”

Sunday, July 8, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 7 - Digerati In The Mist

Amazingly enough, after crawling through fresh gorilla shit for the last half mile, we have come upon them in one of the few real clearings I've seen all morning. The gorillas are chillin'. Bigingo is some distance away on the far side of his family, sitting under the canopy. He is observing us with a perfect combination of attention and detachment. A real Zen master.

Closer to us, the ladies are spread-eagled on their backs. The young male is busily peeling some of the 20 kilos of bamboo he will eat today. And the kids are just plain busy. Really busy.

Now they come closer and peer at my PowerBook. I am pretty sure this is the first time a wild mountain gorilla has ever seen a computer. I find myself hoping the little ones will be as fascinated as the rangers were. (My God! Have I really become so demented in my techno-evangelism that I now want to wire the gorillas?) It's probably fortunate that they seem to have lost interest. They've rolled themselves in a big, black ball over to the other side of the clearing. Now one has just chased the other up a bamboo stalk near me. It keels over, and they almost land in my lap.
- John Perry Barlow, ‘Africa Rising’, Wired

“Don’t get me started on Gates,” said John Perry Barlow, a Wyoming cattle rancher and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Under a naked 40 watt bulb in Jupiter Room, at the Sky Blue Motel in Kisoro, Uganda (“a 50-bucks-a-night concrete blockhouse with the rooms named after planets”), he was sharing a marijuana joint with me and Dutch entrepreneur Eckart Wintzen who had smuggled it in in his shaving kit. Jupiter Room was next to the latrine and a urine-infused funk hung in the chilly mountain air. The cannabis smoke went some way to reducing it. “Bill lives in a world of his own,” continued JPB, “breathing nothing but his own fumes. You’ll be lucky if he even acknowledges your appeal.”

“But he’s communed with gorillas in the wild,” I said, passing the joint back to Eckart, “like you guys did today, you know. How could he possibly turn us down after an experience like that?” 

“When will you be ready to go to Gates?” asked Eckart, pausing to hold in a lungful of smoke. “You need to strike while the iron is hot.”

“Almost all our ducks are in a row,” I said. “Mike Backes has made a short film that clearly states our case, and business guru Ian Charles Stewart is helping us hammer out the dints in the business plan.” 

“Ian’s a good guy,” said Eckart. 

“I’m surrounded by good guys,” I said. “JPB, did you hear what Eckart did for the gorillas? Gave us $50,000 for the sole purpose of preparing a winning bid to Gates.” 

“That has got to be the most enlightened donation of the year,” said JPB. 
Eckart Wintzen

“So don’t fuck it up,” said Eckart.

“I won’t fuck it up,” I said, taking a hit on the joint. 
“Kinda like what you did for Jane and Luis,” JPB said to Eckart.

“How’s that?” I asked.

“He invested $35,000 in a single-issue that they produced but never printed, which was a forerunner to Wired.” 

JPB was writing a piece for Wired. During the entire nine hours journey by road across Uganda, his PowerBook remained open on his lap as he banged away on how information highways were snaking their way across Africa, “skipping industrialism entirely and leaping directly into the information era.”

We spent the first night at the White Horse Inn in Kabale from where we’d intended to commute each day to trek gorillas from the small mountain town of Kisoro. But after enduring 3 hours on jagged volcanic roads that first morning, we had decided to stay in Kisoro, at the Sky Blue Motel. Problem was, most of our luggage was back in Kibale, including electrical chargers. Consequently, cameras and computers were gasping their last, and we stank. 

John Perry Barlow put away his PowerBook and beamed. “The vibe is so different here. People we see along the road smile and wave. I see them waving even from the distant fields, genuinely glad to see us. Imagine average Americans smiling and waving at a carload of passing Africans.

John Perry Barlow at his apartment in New York City, 1998

Sunday, July 1, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 6 - The Wizard of DOS

Douglas’s once-and-for-all fund to save the gorillas forever took time to gestate. In April 1996, 9 months after Congo premiered, he got his first opportunity to appeal to a suitably wealthy person, co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen. He wrote to tell me about it:

I saw Paul Allen at the weekend, and did broach the subject, saying that it was within the power of somebody, for $250,000 a year, to ensure the survival of an entire species. He definitely registered the information, but what he will choose to do about it is anybody’s guess at the moment. I will next see him in May and I will then explore how far into his mind the idea has percolated. I’m on the case!
- Email from Douglas Adams to Greg Cummings

As it turned out the idea had not percolated very far into Paul Allen’s mind at all, so we turned our attention to Microsoft’s other co-founder, Bill Gates. He was a excellent prospect. Not only was he the richest man in the world, hence a safe bet when trying to raise an eight figure sum, but he had previously stated, in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, that he considered the Mountain gorilla to be one of the “wonders of the world.”

Everybody seems to have gone silent at Microsoft!

Among the things I talked to Nathan about was a plan to raise a large fund from the computer industry to permanently underwrite the conservation of mountain gorillas, and he responded warmly to the idea and even mentioned that it was something that Bill “might” respond to since he was pretty impressed by his own trip to see the gorillas.

My friend Greg Cummings (of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) is currently in Seattle as part of a trip round the west coast in pursuit of this goal and, in spite of intercessions from me and Mike Backes, is having no luck in reaching Nathan. I gave him your address too, but has not managed to reach you. If you are in town, please could you give him a call? Even if you aren’t able to help he’s feeling a bit stranded!
- Email from Douglas Adams too Linda Stone

The lobby of the Edgewater Hotel
Angular sunbeams cut across the smoke filled lobby of The Edgewater, a wood and stone atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows and a large fireplace. Elliott Bay was sparkling, scored by rumbling propellors, ringing stays, ships’ horns, and yodelling sea gulls. I was pacing back and forth across a fleur-de-lis patterned carpet. Seattle’s dazzling show of maritime prowess reminded me why I’d come to the Emerald City, to tap the largess of America’s economic miracle. And I’d finally been granted an audience with Microsoft’s CTO. I was due to meet him at his office in 40 minutes. “Can’t blow this opportunity, Greg, the big fellas are counting on you.” 

Dr Nathan Myhrvold and the head of the T-rex model from Jurrasic Park

Dr Nathan Myhrvold, dinosaur hunter and master French chef who won first prize several years running in the world barbecue championships in Memphis, Tennessee and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cambridge under Stephen Hawking, was by reputation the smartest polymath in tech. “I don’t know anyone I would say is smarter than Nathan,” Bill Gates told The New Yorker. “He stands out even in the Microsoft environment.” 

“Mr Cummings?” I turned abruptly to see a bellhop standing behind me smiling. “Your town car is here.” 

I stubbed out my Marlboro, wiped my clammy hands on my chinos, and grabbed my computer bag. Trying to blend in with the locals, I’d worn a white Oxford shirt and blue blazer. “This is it,” I thought, striding out of the hotel. The bellhop opened the door to a black Lincoln "Sedan de Ville" parked in the forecourt. “Microsoft Corporation,” I told the driver.

We sped across town. The town car seemed to aquaplane over the floating bridge on Lake Washington. Once across, I couldn’t tell Bellevue from Redmond. Seattle’s “boomburbs” were a grid of nondescript steel and glass buildings that rose and fell between city centres like stacked-column dividend charts. 

As we turned into Microsoft Drive, the sun came out. Blossoms lined the leafy pathways that connected a sprawl of low rise buildings covering 750,000 square metres of office space. True to its name, “the campus” bustled with young, entrepreneurial programmers, fresh out of school. 

I signed in at Building 9 and was led up to Dr Myhrvold’s two-module corner office on the first floor. I found the 37 year-old chief technology officer seated behind an unassuming desk. Ginger-bearded and bespectacled, he wasn’t so intimidating in person. “Greg! Come in,” he said, rising to shake my hand. 

“Sorry for doorstepping you,” I said. 

“That’s ok. I apologize for not being more forthcoming to begin with. I didn’t realize at first why you wanted to see me.” We talked about Douglas, his work, and his involvement with the gorillas. Myhrvold spoke in a high-pitched sing-song voice, and seemed at all times to be chuckling incredulously to himself about the transformative epoch we were living in. He told me that not only had his boss seen gorillas in the wild but so had his mother. She’d been caught in Rwanda when the Genocide began and barely escaped the mayhem by crossing into Tanzania. “What’s the population density of Rwanda?” asked Myhrvold.

“760 per square mile,” I said.

“Cool. Have you read Jared Diamond’s new book, Guns, Germs, and Steel? He believes what happened in Rwanda illustrates Malthus's worst-case scenario. In a place where farming depends on handheld hoes and machetes, there’s never enough surplus to support fewer farmers, so land is an essential resource just for staying alive. Consequently, when human population growth outruns the growth of food production…Boom!” I began to worry that Africa’s bloody politics had once again upstaged the moment. “Douglas says you have a plan I should see.”

“Yes, to guarantee the survival of the Mountain gorilla.” I handed him my proposal and he leafed through it while listening to me explain how we intended to tackle the threats to the gorillas. “A good deal of time and effort has gone into preparing it,” I added. “We’re hoping you’ll put it in front of Mr Gates.” 

 “Cool. Well, here’s the deal,” he said, putting the document to one side. “You’re not there yet, but I’ll help you fine-tune your proposal, and when it’s ready I’ll take it to Bill with my recommendation.” 
CNN filming Linda Stone and Nathan Myhrvold at Microsoft