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.”

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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
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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
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Sunday, June 24, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 5 - Time to Act

From the slopes of Mount Mikeno you can see two of Africa’s most active volcanoes, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo. Carl Akeley called it “the most beautiful place in all of Africa.” In 1921 he shot the Old Man of Mikeno here, a gorilla he mounted for the Africa Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of my favourite places to muse in Manhattan.

In January 1996, I found myself in Zaire, on the opposite side of the volcanoes from where I’d previously trekked in Rwanda, gazing out across the exact same panorama that Akeley’s diorama depicts. Much had changed in the intervening 75 years. A million Rwandan refugees were camped in the valley. Every day a chunk of forest the size of a football field got cut down for fuel. 

Carl Akeley's gorilla diaorama at the American Museum of Natural History, New York
I was looking for a site to build a new conservation centre on the perimeter of Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest national park. My trekking companions were Popol Veorhostraat, a Belgian businessman, and Trinto Mugangu, a Zaïrean conservationist, both in their late 40s. Trinto had flown in from Kinshasa to join our expedition, while Popol lived nearby.

By day we tracked gorillas and by night we ate roasted pork and drank bourbon by the fire at one of the half a dozen gites dotted along the edge of the park. Above us, the stars, so bright they lit up the volcanoes in the moonless night, and below, a million pinpoints of light from the refugee camps spread across the valley. 

I recalled some of my recent dealings with space and computer technology. “Gorillas gave me a backstage pass to the world,” I said, “access to people who’s time is more valuable than their money. Sure I use charm, an informed pitch, and my faith in Africa to seal the deal. But it’s gorillas, with their long arms and opposable thumbs, that open those doors for me.”

“You have spoken wisely,” said Trinto.

“Thing is, none of my conservation colleagues appreciate what I’m doing. Some even despise me.” I said, staring into the fire. “I'm not an academic. They’ve all got PhDs. They’re used to having their wings clipped.”

"You want a PhD?" asked Popol, slapping my back, "I can get you one tomorrow from a Zaïrean university." 

On day four we set out to find Oscar/Rugendo group, so named after its silverback. (As in other gorilla range states, Zaïrean gorillas were given a local name, but they were also allowed to keep their 'colonial' name, hence Oscar/Rugendo). What made tracking this group so intriguing was that the week before the gorillas had left the forest and traveled some five kilometres into adjacent farmland, which constituted the largest single exodus of megafauna from the ecosystem since the forest elephants left in the 1970s.

What prompted Oscar/Rugendo's departure from his habitat is anyone's guess. He had a penchant for banana trees, so park rangers had been trying to dissuade farmers from planting banana next to the park. No surprise then that we found him in a banana shamba. The land belonged to the local chief. Fortunately, he didn't mind having a dozen gorillas camped in his backyard. A poorer farmer might not have been so accommodating. The chief was nevertheless seeking damages from the wildlife authority of $5,000 a day.

As daylight faded, the gorillas began fashioning night nests from the leaves of the surrounding banana trees, blithely bending and weaving them into springy bedding. Banana is not endemic to gorilla habitats, so their dexterity was a wonder to behold. Curious villagers watched from a safe distance. But there was no safe distance. We needed to get the gorillas back into the park.

That evening, after a bumpy drive back into town, I called Ian Redmond in London, who had previously worked with Dian Fossey, told him about the situation with Oscar. He said that, to ward off gorillas from areas that were heavily trapped, Dian had used bells. 

"Les closhes!?" laughed Popol. "Ah, bien sur! But where the fuck are we going to find bells in Zaïre? They've all been stolen..." 

A week later Zaïrean park rangers wearing civvies gathered in a horseshoe formation around the gorilla group and used bells and ghetto blasters to drive them back into the forest. No one got hurt. Soon afterward, the silverback once again strayed from the forest. This time he was shot and killed.

The Virunga Volcanoes straddle the border between Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo

How to succour beasts in the wake of such epic human tragedies as the Rwandan Genocide and Zairian refugee crisis? My wife Jillian, who worked in public relations, joined me at the charity. Together we conceived of a way to save gorillas through community development in Africa. As a husband and wife team attempting to bring about social change in one of the world's most dangerous regions, we had grave challenges to overcome. 

We appointed Luiz Fabbri, a Brazilian economist with experience in Mozambique and Angola. to devise a long-term, war-resilient, gorilla conservation programme. First he identified what harmful activities lead to the encroachment of the park - water collection, beekeeping, medicinal plants, and bushmeat - then found local grassroots organizations that were focusing their efforts on those areas, and struck up partnerships. The aim was to take pressure off the park by providing training in alternative livelihoods. He also surveyed people living next to the gorilla habitat to find out what value they put on the park. “Zero,” he told me. “They think it belongs to European royalty.”

“Maybe that’s because Virunga used to be called Prince Albert National Park,” I said.

“No, they think all wildlife parks in Africa are owned by European aristocrats.”

“Ok, so how are we going to do this? We may soon have an opportunity to pitch our cause to some of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists. We need to show them an all-singing, all-dancing gorilla loving nation.”

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund poster with silverback - photo Jody Boyman

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 4 - Virtual Africa Office

“What a load of crap!” howled Douglas Adams as he threw open the lobby doors of the Empire Leicester Square. He’d just sat through 109 minutes of Congo, a jungle adventure story about a trained gorilla that’s taken back to the wild. I caught up with him at the after party, in the basement of the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore. He and Storm Thorgerson were standing next to a scale model of a volcano spewing day-glow lava from its top. “Sorry if I was a bit vocal back there at the theatre,” said Douglas. He was an imposing man, both in stature and imagination. 

“No, you’re right,” I laughed, “the movie stank. I’m amazed you stayed until the end. But we did well out of it. The studio paid us for our radar image (even though it was in the public domain), used our literature in their set designs, and gave us the London premiere, which really boosted morale at the charity. Besides, the gorillas stand to earn a pile of dough from the on-pack video promotion, so…”

“So it’s good for something,” said Storm. 

“I thought your film of Arthur looked great up there on the big screen,” I said.

“I thought it was corny,” said Storm, casually surveying the room for familiar faces. “Hard to imagine I earned a masters here. It was a lot groovier back then.”

“Oh, by the way, Douglas,” I said, jingling my bourbon on the rocks, “I’ve got an appeal going out next week to coincide with the movie’s release.”

“Another one?” asked Douglas. “Don’t you ever tire of writing appeal letters?” I looked at him aghast. “Nothing wrong with them, as such,” continued Adams. “It’s just this tendency to continually put bandaids on the problem that bothers me. I mean, you put all that effort into asking for donations, but only ever raise enough to keep the gorillas safe for a few more months. What would it take to draw a line under the issue? I know some wealthy people. How much money do you need to make sure, as much as is humanly possible, the mountain gorillas are saved forever?"

“Now there’s a challenge,” I laughed. “Let’s see, the annual cost of gorilla protection is around a quarter of a million dollars.”

“So you need an interest-bearing lump sum to pay for that in perpetuity. How much is that?” 

“$5-6 million,” said Storm. 

”To save a species?” smiled Adams. “A bargain.”

“We should continue this conversation at my office,” I smiled. “The prospect of raising a sum large enough to ensure I never have to fundraise again is very appealing.”

A week later he visited our office in Primrose Hill, brought along Richard Harris, CTO of The Digital Village (TDV), an online entertainment company where Douglas was Chief Fantasist. We sat at a large round table in the basement next to a wall sized map of central Africa. 

“Tell me about your conservation work,” said Douglas. “How does $250,000 a year save gorillas?”

“Shipments of bananas,” I joked. “No, most of the money gets spent on anti-poaching patrols, equipment, salaries of the park rangers, and running the research facility.”

“Do you have researchers out there now?” asked Richard.

“Not at Karisoke. They were all evacuated. That’s twice in two years we’ve had to evacuative our American staff from Rwanda. And security in the region doesn’t look like it’s going to improve anytime soon.” 

“What you need is a digital hub,” said Richard, “an information resource that can be accessed from anywhere.” He looked at our network of desktop PCs, shook his head in dismay, then added, “And some Macs.”

“I should be able to get those donated,” said Douglas. “And I am happy to donate the proceeds from Hitchhiker. Theatre groups often stage amateur productions of it, and I’d be glad to send you those royalty cheques.” I smiled. “TDV, however, is heading into new territory in digital media, adapting Hitchhiker’s worlds into interactive forms. Meantime, I’m meeting people who are sitting on pots of money. You can be the parrot on my shoulder.” 

The next day he sent an email to Apple Computer:

We are planning to do a major TDV website with them and in the long term have even more ambitions plans - realtime gorilla tracking in virtual models of the Virungas on the Web. The Fund already has use of a satellite for transmitting data back from Africa. They desperately need equipment right at the moment, and I have been strongly advocating Apple to them.
- Email from Douglas Adams to Apple Computer

Apple donated a PowerMac 8500/120/16/2GB, Multiple Scan 1705 Display, Colour StyleWriter 2200, and a PowerBook 5300C/100 8/500 - about $8,000 worth of gear. 
PowerMac 8500

In Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital he talks about an early prototype of a machine that pushed back at you, a force-feedback device. I wrote to him to ask if such a device might be used to support our anti-poaching efforts: plotting poaching activity on the 3D map we’d made from JPL’s data set of the gorilla habitat to determine the path of least resistance for the gorillas. 

Negroponte had founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, in Cambridge, MA, one of America’s foremost research facilities. The Media Lab was a perfect partner for the conservation education centre we planned to build somewhere between Bwindi and Virunga (the two remaining Mountain gorilla habitats are only 35 kilometres apart). Such a facility would be an ideal naming opportunity for the donor to Douglas’s once-and-for-all fund. 
Wiesner Building, MIT Media Lab

My letter prompted an invitation in November 1995. The Media Lab’s Building E15, a.k.a. the Wiesner Building, was designed by I.M. Pei. On the outside it resembled a shiny new gift box, or the packaging to a futuristic games console. Inside the four-storey building was a warren of studios and workshops. Prof Michael Hawley, who studied under Marvin Minsky, gave me a tour of the facility. Things that Think, Toys of Tomorrow, and GO expeditions were all projects he was working on at the time.

He showed me a large room that had been entirely blacked out and was lighted only by LEDs. “Nike are sponsoring this project,” said Hawley. I can’t remember what they were doing in there, but the venue reminded me of being backstage at the Pink Floyd concert.

“This is a haptic device,” said Hawley, grasping a shiny metal pen attached to a mechanical arm, “the technology you asked about in our letter to my boss. It takes advantage of my sense of touch to simulate objects, applying forces, vibrations, or motions to my hand. Here, give it a try.” Floating inflexibly next to the device was an invisible cube. I could feel its presence by moving the pen over its surface, or knocking it against it. Magic!

“Come, let me show you something else you might like,” he said, leading me down the corridor to another workshop. “A couple friends have built a holography research group.” Suspended from the ceiling were some interesting full colour holographic portraits, sharp and beautiful. On an optical bench full of lasers was a holo-video system. “Not exactly Princess Leia beamed from R2D2,” laughed Hawley. “Have you thought about making a hologram of a silverback?” 

“Wow,” I gasped. “That would be amazing.”

“There’s a lot of equipment involved,” smiled Hawley. “How would gorillas react to having lasers in their midst? Also, the silverback would have to stay perfectly still, if only for an instant. Any movement by more than a millionth of a meter is enough to ruin your hologram.”

“We could create a soft mockup of the equipment and give them a few weeks to get used to it,” I said. “Then, when we’re sure it’s ok , we introduce the real equipment, shoot our hologram.”

“Ok, here’s what we can offer you,” said Hawley. “At the Media Lab your charity will enjoy the same privileges as our corporate sponsors. That’s a benefit worth $100,000 a year. You can look in on any of the technologies we’re developing and see what suits your conservation efforts.” 

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 3 - Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Storm Thorgerson, whom I met in October 1994, cared little about gorillas, though he liked me. After seeing a science documentary he produced for Equinox on TV, an examination of the Hubble constant called The Rubber Universe, I contacted him. I was a huge fan of his work, had been since his days with Hipgnosis, an art design group that created surrealistic album cover art for some of my favourite bands in the 1970s, including Genesis, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. No doubt, he could make a compelling film about the convergence of space technology and gorilla conservation.

Storm's seminal design for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon
“Never encountered a Hipgnosis groupie before,” said Storm when we met. It was a bright, brisk Autumn day. Close to my office and his studio, Primates Restaurant in Chalk Farm, with its subtle jungle theme, posters of great apes on the walls, and menus illustrated with primate species, was the perfect venue. We were seated at a window-side table bathed in sunlight.

“You opened the door to great music for me,” I said, unfolding my napkin on my lap. “Back when I was building my record collection, ‘Designed by Hipgnosis’ was a hallmark for eclectic vinyl.”

“Quite a stroke of luck,” said Storm as he studied the menu, “having a restaurant in the neighbourhood that promotes your cause.”

“Try the lamb shank, it’s their speciality.”

“Do they serve monkey?” asked Storm. 

“No,” I laughed, “but the gorillas do get a cut of the profits. The owner’s a big supporter of the charity.”

“I should warn you, I don’t believe in charity,” sniffed Storm. “If the gorillas need saving then it’s up to governments to pay for it. That’s why I pay taxes.” 

Storm Thorgerson at DFGF's London office, 1998
“I understand, but this has been a grim year for us. No one was prepared for what happened in Rwanda. What if I told you that when the genocide began, the space shuttle Endeavour was orbiting overhead, scanning the gorilla habit with an imaging radar?”

“Is this the film you want me to make?” asked Storm.

“Absolutely! I think the spectrum of hope and despair embodied in that epic moment should somehow be documented.”

I told him how Arthur C. Clarke had persuaded NASA to include the gorilla habitat in not one but two space shuttle missions, and then, journeying outside Sri Lanka for the first time in years, he joined me at Spaceport USA in Florida for the second shuttle launch, which was scrubbed at the very last second. “I’m a big fan of Clarke’s,” said Storm, digging into his lamb shank. “The cover for Zeppelin’s ‘Presence’ was inspired by his monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But how do you propose we film an event that’s already happened?”

“Good point,” I said. “I’m working on that…”

The following Saturday, at around six o’clock in the evening, my home phone rang. It was Storm. “Is it true you’ve never seen the Floyd in concert?” 

“Never,” I said.

“Well, there’s an access all areas pass waiting for you at the stage door. If you hurry, you might just make the opening number.” 

The Pink Floyd were giving their final performance of The Division Bell tour at Earl’s Court, where they had so far performed 13 nights straight. The gig was mind-blowing, even without drugs. Backstage at the band party after the show, I felt like I was in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set. 

“What’s the point of having a dream team if you’re not prepared to fucking listen to them?” snapped Storm over the phone to me. It was five months later and we were making a short film together, a message from Arthur C. Clarke to be shown at the London premiere of Congo. It wasn’t the Gorillas From Space film I’d envisioned us making, but there wasn’t money for that.

With Clarke’s greeting from Sri Lanka in the can, Storm now wanted to shoot closeups of his books and I was objecting to the additional cost. But he refused to back down. He’d been mansplaining his artistic visions to music industry morons for decades, he was hardly going to yield to a neophyte like me. Besides, Storm was my hero. “Alright!” I said, “we’ll do it your way.”

The next morning, I hauled a stack of Arthur’s science fiction paperbacks down to King Studios in Soho, found him at the controls of a 35 millimetre rostrum camera, which had been designed to animate the inanimate. Quietly, between sips of tea, he arranged the books side by side on a table beneath the camera, then slowly panned the lens diagonally over them, capturing every tear and dog-eared corner. He told a different story than what was written in those books.

His studio in Belsize Park was just a short walk from my office, and I often visited. I spent as much time watching him work as I had studying his album covers when I was a teenager. His rock and roll stories and mordant sense of humour were an antidote to the terrible things happening in my world.

Apologies to Yes for stealing both the title and artwork of their album 'Going For The One', which Storm Thorgerson designed

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 2 - Gorillas From Space

It has been said that the most valuable prize the Apollo astronauts brought home was the famous photograph of our beautiful blue world, like a fragile X-mas tree ornament hanging in the empty blackness of space. It taught us to respect and cherish our home planet, and to care for its natural heritage.

    Orbiting satellites - the tools of the space age - now allow us to study the surface of our planet in detail which has never been possible from the ground. We can observe the growth of crops, deforestation, pollution and many other processes that are impacting the environment.

    To give one dramatic example, radar carried on the Space Shuttle has produced the first detailed maps of the habitat of the mountain gorillas in Africa - a feat previously impossible, because, as Dian Fossey’s famous book title indicated, gorillas live in a mist which only radar waves can penetrate. The new maps allow rangers, equipped with hand held GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which also depend on satellites, to locate themselves accurately, and to protect the few hundred remaining gorillas from the poachers who have mercilessly exterminated them.

I am particularly pleased to have been associated with the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund of the UK in this enterprise, which may seem ironic in view of Rwanda’s horrendous human tragedy. Yet, when men are behaving worse than beasts, perhaps there is some hope for our species, if some of its members are prepared, against almost impossible odds, to protect these harmless, gentle cousins of ours.
- Arthur C. Clarke, August 1994 

Arthur C. Clarke owned the first computer I ever saw, a Commodore PET 2001. It had a small trapezoid-shaped monitor fixed on top of a white box, an integrated keyboard, and a cassette recorder for mass data. Blue text scrolled across the screen giving us the exact position of Venus at that moment. “Meet Junior HAL,” said Clarke. He’d named his PC after the sentient computer controlling the Jupiter bound spacecraft in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, many of the PET’s design features were inspired by 2001. 

I was sixteen years old, visiting my parents in Sri Lanka during a break from boarding school, and had used the pretext of an astronomical problem I was struggling with (Sidereal Time) to look up my childhood idol’s phone number (in the book), give him a call (which he answered himself), and invite myself around to his house (the very same day). 

“Right,” said Clarke, “let’s see if Junior HAL knows what he’s talking about.” We stepped outside on to a terrace. The array of satellite dishes in his yard was impressive for the day; Clarke probably had the best privately-owned comms system in the world in 1979. He was, after all, the godfather of comms, a Space Race utopian who in 1945 dreamed up the idea of the communications satellite.

He picked up his Celestron C8 telescope and moved it to the centre of the terrace, which was dazzling in the midday equatorial sunshine. “These terracotta tiles were laid in line with the celestial equator. Makes it easier to position the telescope.” He punched in Venus’s coordinates. The telescope’s built-in motor drive hummed and the instrument swivelled to a new position. “Here, see for yourself,” said Clarke. I peered into the eyepiece and, sure enough, Venus was dead centre, quarter phase, like an earthenware teacup. “The motor drive will stay locked on the planet’s position for days,” smiled Clarke. “Now lets see if we can find Venus with the naked eye.”

With Arthur C. Clarke at Kennedy Space Centre, August 1994
Fifteen years later, and 9,000 kilometres away, at my office in Primrose Hill, I was trying to cope with the eleventh-hour news that the gorillas had been dropped by NASA from its Mission to Planet Earth, three months before launch day. The space shuttle Endeavour was due to launch with a spaceborne imaging radar on board, which would have given us a rare glimpse through the mist of the gorilla habitat. We had been gearing up for a tremendous PR coup for the gorillas. Then a letter arrived from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, revoking our participation.

The mountain gorilla habitat from space
I called my old friend in Sri Lanka. If anyone could countermand a space agency decision, Arthur C. Clarke could. “Gorillas from space?” he laughed. “I’d love to help. Wildlife conservation is a cause close to my heart.” He sent a fax to his most senior contact at JPL, saying, “I hope it can be re-instated - it would be wonderful publicity for JPL/Nasa!”

The strategy paid off. We were reinstated. Endeavour launched at 7:05 am on April 9, 1994. Once the spacecraft was in orbit we were able to follow its progress via hourly reports sent by the shuttle crew to a NASA newsgroup on the Internet. And then, as planned, on its 58th orbit of Earth, flying belly-up with its payload door open, Endeavour aimed the radar-imaging equipment at the Virunga Volcanoes and acquired the first ‘data set’ of the gorilla habitat. 

Astronaut Rich Clifford, who was on board at the time, recalls how the imaging radar could “see” through the obscuration, the gorillas in the mist.

“Delighted Endeavour is doing its thing!” wrote Clarke. 

Arthur C. Clarke's fax to JPL

Original caption released by NASA/JPL with the above Iimage:
This is a false-color composite of Central Africa, showing the Virunga volcano chain along the borders of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. This area is home to the endangered mountain gorillas. The image was acquired on October 3, 1994, on orbit 58 of the space shuttle Endeavour by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR). In this image red is the L-band (horizontally transmitted, vertically received) polarization; green is the C-band (horizontally transmitted and received) polarization; and blue is the C-band (horizontally transmitted and received) polarization. The area is centered at about 2.4 degrees south latitude and 30.8 degrees east longitude. The image covers an area 56 kilometers by 70 kilometers (35 miles by 43 miles).

The dark area at the top of the image is Lake Kivu, which forms the border between Zaire (to the right) and Rwanda (to the left). In the center of the image is the steep cone of Nyiragongo volcano, rising 3,465 meters (11,369 feet) high, with its central crater now occupied by a lava lake. To the left are three volcanoes, Mount Karisimbi, rising 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) high; Mount Sabinyo, rising 3,600 meters (12,000 feet) high; and Mount Muhavura, rising 4,100 meters (13,500 feet) high. To their right is Nyamuragira volcano, which is 3,053 meters (10,017 feet) tall, with radiating lava flows dating from the 1950s to the late 1980s. These active volcanoes constitute a hazard to the towns of Goma, Zaire and the nearby Rwandan refugee camps, located on the shore of Lake Kivu at the top left. This radar image highlights subtle differences in the vegetation of the region. The green patch to the center left of the image in the foothills of Karisimbi is a bamboo forest where the mountain gorillas live. The vegetation types in this area are an important factor in the habitat of mountain gorillas. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in London will use this data to produce vegetation maps of the area to aid in their studies of the last 650 mountain gorillas in the world. The faint lines above the bamboo forest are the result of agricultural terracing by the people who live in the region.

Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C and X-Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) is part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. The radars illuminate Earth with microwaves, allowing detailed observations at any time, regardless of weather or sunlight conditions. SIR-C/X-SAR uses three microwave wavelengths: L-band (24 cm), C-band (6 cm) and X-band (3 cm). The multi-frequency data will be used by the international scientific community to better understand the global environment and how it is changing. The SIR-C/X-SAR data, complemented by aircraft and ground studies, will give scientists clearer insights into those environmental changes which are caused by nature and those changes which are induced by human activity.

SIR-C was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. X-SAR was developed by the Dornier and Alenia Spazio companies for the German space agency, Deutsche Agentur fuer Raumfahrtangelegenheiten (DARA), and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), with the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luft und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), the major partner in science, operations and data processing of X-SAR.

When Paramount Pictures were in the early stages of adapting Michael Crichton’s Congo, they sent associate producer Mike Backes to the Remote Sensing Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey to see the 3D digital map of the gorilla habitat we were developing. After meeting the director of our research centre in Rwanda, he said to me, “That guy looks like he could pull an arrowhead out of his leg with his teeth.”

Mike Backes captured the zeitgeist of the New Media Age. He wore chic rimless eyeglasses, black silk shirts, and sported an ultra hip chrome dome that glowed with extraordinary brain power. I saw all of his movies and played all of his video games. When he appeared on the cover of Wired, I began reading the magazine religiously, carried issues around for months - coffee-stained tokens of the times, as meaningful to me as a Vonnegut novel or a Zeppelin album. 

Backes, who co-wrote the movie Rising Sun with Michael Crichton and supervised display graphics on Jurassic Park, promised to tap his friend and collaborator for a donation. One evening, while I was relaxing at home with my wife Jillian in our north London council flat, the phone rang. My teenage step-daughter Imogen, who had an extension in her room, answered. “Er, Greg,” she said, standing at the living room door with an irrepressible grin on her face, “it’s Michael Crichton on the phone.” 

He had called to pledge a $25,000 donation to protect Mt Tshiaberimu, a remote ecosystem in an isolated part of Virunga National Park in Zaire. Just 60 km2 in size, the mountain forest was home to a tiny population of gorillas, thought to be a unique sub-species, that had all but been forgotten by conservationists. This appealed to Crichton, who funded the project for the next 4 years, during which time the gorilla population grew from 16 to 21. 

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