Preparing to raze
Watching too much TV
with Thomas the implausible heterosexual
California dreaming
We're not sure how this happened
Why television is bad
How one American home was torn apart

Helicopter girl

It all started last Saturday when I went to a conference at Berkeley called "Biotech at 25".

James Watson may have won the Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of DNA's double helical molecular structure, but that doesn't stop him from being a nasty, nasty man. His slides were being shown through a video projector, the better to webcast Watson's presentation. He objected to the quality of the image. While frantic menials rushed to appease him, he snarled to the audience: "At Cold Springs Harbor I have a highly paid incompetent to show my slides out of focus. Here they use grad students. It's quite clear that Berkeley's a liberal arts school and not a science school. And that the quality of the students here is going down. Have you people *ever* shown slides before?"

The video link was removed, resulting in an infinitesimal improvement in quality, but Watson was appeased. He rushed through the rest of his talk, which was addressed to his friends in the front row and largely incomprehensible to the intelligent lay person (assuming that that's what I am). Here's what I did glean: there exist many snapshots of Watson with his famous friends; all those who failed to hail Watson as the genius of the age, up to and including Linus Pauling, were stupid; people who raise doubts over genetic engineering are stupid ("How can you regulate something when you can't count?"); people with liberal arts degrees are stupid (no comments from the peanut gallery, thanks); people who haven't won the Nobel prize are stupid; with genetic engineering, this could all be fixed.

Somehow I failed to warm to Watson. Stan Cohn, who won the Nobel for his discovery of recombinant DNA, spoke next. He was gracious and humble and explained his work in terms that I thought I could understand, and threw credit around like candy. "Science isn't done in a vacuum. As with most discoveries, one can say with some certainty that is Boyer and I had not collaborated, the cloning of DNA would later have been achieved by others. Such is and should be the nature of science." Somehow I warmed to Cohn.

The other very interesting speakers were Paul Rabinow, who wrote a book on PCR which I must now find and read, and Steven Burrill, a VC who specializes in biotech startups. Burrill explained why biotech is not yet the new IT: very long product development cycles, in the order of eight to ten years; an unpredictable regulatory climate and the controversy over patenting biological discoveries: "Some people think patents are bad, but without them we have nothing, 'cause no one's going to invest if they can't protect it, and it's only an economic right for a limited amount of time." I don't know whether I agree, but at least he made me think. $85 billion has been invested in the industry, which is worth $250bn today. By Bay Area standards, that's a bad, bad rate of return.

After that I caught BART back to San Francisco, and the Muni Metro from BART to the Caltrain terminal, and Caltrain down to Mountain View, which took three hours all told - a hell of a way to spend Saturday night, especially when you throw in the ten-pound PowerBook. When the train finally pulled in to Mountain View, the first thing I saw was Fraser's black VW Beetle Marlowe, and the second thing I saw was Fraser, standing on the platform *exactly* opposite the door to my carriage. Serendipity! We bought a bottle of Bailey's to celebrate, and went back to his place and drank it and watched the Star Wars trailer many, many times. "My people are dying, Senator! We muzz do something quickly!"

At some obscene hour in the morning, we drove to Moffatt Field, gave extensive ID at the gate and were directed to the media event: "It's past that big ole hangar, out by the big ole plane." We parked the car and marvelled at Harrier Jump Jets and F-18 Hornets parked just beyond the fence. Then Fraser, that lucky man, went back to bed and I was weighed down with harness and helmet and flotation device, the better to survive a helicopter crash at sea. I hadn't realized that they'd dropped a helicopter full of journalists the day before, but this salient fact was imparted to me during the media briefing. How thoughtful.

Discovery: it is very hard to stand up straight underneath the rotor of a helicopter, even when you have been assured that it is too high to cut off your head.

So I'm locked into an open-sided, Vietnam-era Huey with the film crew from ZDTV, and GI Joe is sitting next to me and hanging out of the helicopter, and it occurs to me that if I endure this flight in abject terror, the Big Man will laugh at me very heartily, so I resolve to have a good time. And by God, I do! The little Huey lifts off so gently I don't even realize we've taken off, and then Moffatt field drops away below and I see Mountain View laid out like a train set, and we turn towards the Bay and it's just the loveliest thing you ever imagined, all silver with a grey curtain of rain across the city, and the air is thin and cool and delicious. I laugh with the utter delight of it all, and GI Joe looks around and sees my expression and *he* starts laughing too.

I was plugged into the radio and so I could listen to different air traffic controllers handing us across. Moffatt has its own airspace, and then we flew over Dumbarton Bridge into Palo Alto, where a very sexy-sounding Korean girl guided us into SFO airspace. We almost made it to Treasure Island but the grey curtain had turned to a wall of storm, and various terrifying alarms sounded, and we turned around and went back through SFO to the Korean girl and over the bridge and down to the big ole hangar. And that was that.

The utterly gorgeous, lil-cleft-chin all-American-blond pilot apologized for having to turn around because of the weather, and when I said that on the contrary I was very much obliged to him for the glorious flight and for not crashing and so forth, he touched me on the elbow and looked me in the eye and said "You're welcome, ma'am." Well I ask you; how is one supposed to maintain a correct anti-militarist position when the US Marines are so damn cute?

On Sunday afternoon I zoomed back to Jeremy and Bebe and our new flat with its remarkably satisfying vista of rooftops and chimneypots and distant grassy knolls, and after that life went a bit quiet until Thursday, when thanks to Mr Pesce I was a VIP guest at the Webby Awards. I wore a proper Designer Frock! Jo, you would have been proud of me; it's purple with a black lace overdress, and it makes me look tall and girly and possibly famous in some esoteric way. Journalists kept stopping to ask me my impressions of things, and when I showed them my own press pass, they were nonplussed.

I caught BART to the Awards and was then much amused to have to walk up a red carpet and past the paparazzi, just as if this really were the Oscars and not a geeky faux-ironic imitation. Many champagne cocktails later, Vordo and I survived the ceremony by telling each other jokes. The people to our left won a People's Choice award and the people to our right won a Webby, so everyone was happy. Acceptance speeches are limited to five words, which is a very great mercy. My favourite was PBS Onlines's: "This one's for Tinky Winky!"

Afterwards there was a tremendous party in City Hall. It was straight out of Microserfs. There was a grand staircase to sweep up, and three rooms decorated in single colours: red, green and yellow, with matching themed foods. There was Lego to play with, and the centre tables had long drapes, such that three people at a time could hide underneath in moderate comfort, we found. 2am found me curled up on a red velvet sofa with Zak, the beautiful young CEO of, both of us snoozing gently. Mark put me in a taxi, and so to bed.

Friday, March 26, 1998. Happy birthday, Sbg and Grant.
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