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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