Letter 15

Hi!  It's been too long, and I have found a few hours at the end of a
long week for a quick update on my life.  I think my last update was a
very brief note before taking off for Europe at the end of last year.
For those of you in a hurry, the most important information is that my
address has changed,

308 Scott Street,
San Francisco
phone number: 415-505-9354 (my mobile)

I am experimentally changing my e-mail address to try and separate work and play e-mail so you might want to try using:

http://www.feb17.org  (pictures and stuff)


I had quite an amazingly and relaxing time at the end of last year.
I went travelling with a good friend Amanda and managed to squeeze
in London, Amsterdam, Berlin (Amanda then went to Prague), Salzburg,
Innsbruck and Munich.  I think one of the definite highlights of the
trip was seeing NY eve in Berlin and then waking up the next morning to
see the new euro introduced. Those crazy Germans.  It was quite cold at
that time of year but still very fun, I've decided I love train travel,
especially since there are no two-hour waits to get on a train and to
get through security checks.

Hunting for a home in SF,

It was on a train to Brussels late last year that I sketched out
everything going on in my life, and I started my big project for 2002
would be looking at (emphasis on looking not buying) real estate in
San Francisco.  I've always assumed it would be kind of unrealistic
to contemplate actually owning a place (I think the median price is
over $400,000 in the Bay Area), but started looking in January and was
pleasantly surprised at what was available around $500,000.  I was pretty
sick in February with some nasty virus, so it wasn't until March that I
really started looking seriously.  It's common in this market for there
to be a real estate agent acting for the buyer in addition to the regular
sellers agent, and I was very lucky to get in touch with a lovely gay
couple of real estate agents who were very professional and who made what
was about to become a very complex process relatively straightforward.
I looked at a large number of places over a relatively short period of
time and managed to eliminate romantic ideals I had about living in a loft
south of market.  I looked in various places but decided the triangle
between church, market and Hayes Valley (up around Duboce triangle)
was a good area based on neighbourhood and public transport.  I ended
up falling in love with a beautiful Edwardian unit in the Hayes Valley,
Lower Haight area.  There is a lot of debate at the moment about whether
it's easier to buy, and whether the market has "bottomed".  It certainly
seemed a lot less insane than a year ago, but once I had decided on this
place, that's where the fun began. 

Buying real estate in San Francisco..

The price was very reasonable (about $400,000), but it was rather
complicated.  For a start the building is organised as a Tenancy in
common, meaning that I officially bought 23 percent of the building
not my unit, so it is jointly owned and the mortgage is a joint
responsibility. I've been getting to know my neighbours very well.
There are rules under which you can convert to a condominium (separate
ownership joint management of common areas), but for very complex reasons
mainly to do with City rental politics, this is a very complex process
currently involving changing City laws, legal challenges and a lottery.
I hope in about five years that it will be possible to do the conversion
and it should significantly increase the value of the place.  The second
problem also involves City rental politics.  At some stage tenants had
been evicted from the building, under something known as the Ellis act,
meaning that to re rent you need to first to re offer the place to the
original tenant that was evicted at the same rate.  It turns out my unit
has been Ellis acted but the tenant left voluntarily so there hasn't been
an eviction, but that person has been re offered and they refused so I'm
free to rent, after spending two hours with an attorney at $275 per hour.
He did mention one other interesting point, which was that the seller
had only participated in 8 percent of the loan on the building, which
had subsequently risen in value, and this explained why the seller is
actually advancing most of the loan since I cannot take out a mortgage
on a fraction of the building.  This is all fine once the condominium
conversion happens but the loan from the seller was originally for five
years (that was rewritten somewhat in subsequent legal negotiation)
etc. etc. etc. that was March and April pretty much every evening
reading researching and signing waivers that in true Californian fashion
explained that I understood no one takes responsibility for anything
anymore.  The earthquake documentation was certainly sobering.  On the
bright side, this house has survived two of the largest earthquakes in
inhabited history, so that seemed like less of a concern.  We did have
a good earthquake that seemed to be widely reported recently (although
it was small) and it was certainly felt (I was over and Kathy's place),
so I still haven't felt one in the new place.

My new home!

May first I took possession of the house.  It was quite an experience
really.  It's a grand old building (1897 probably, the precise records
were destroyed in the fires of 1906, but they have the water connection
dates), and it's still strange some mornings waking up in this huge space
(it has very high ceilings, ornate wooden doors, a huge clawfoot bathtub,
lovely stained glass in several places) and thinking this is mine.
I promptly took off to New York for a week, and then set about the slow
process of moving.  You can see a lot of the pictures on the website.
It was actually sad leaving my tiny apartment in Nob Hill, it has a
lot of associations and I really loved the neighbourhood.  I have a
lot more space now.  I think the total area is about 1000 square feet,
I had the carpet removed and hardwood floors put down before I moved in.
There is one bedroom, a front living area with computer and fireplace
etc. it has a long hallway heading down the back to a dining room,
bathroom, kitchen and small laundry area.  One of the things that has
taken a little adjusting to is that I need to walk to other places in
the house - my living space isn't all on top of itself (if you ever saw
my last place you can understand why I mention this).  It's one of four
units in the building and my unit is on the ground floor.  There is a
picture online of the front doorway which has these impressive gates
and four amazing front doors. It's in a pretty cool neighbourhood, a
little more eventful than my previous place with a higher than average
percentage of body piercings, interesting bars, goth girls, dive bars,
actual last century, vinyl analog media retailers and neat restaurants.
There is great public transport and I can easily walk over to the Castro.
I'm still riding down town to the train station.  It's about the same
distance but no intense hill at the beginning.  I am pretty much moved
in, there was a housewarming a few weeks ago.  I'm still splitting
time between my place and Kathy's over in the Mission.  The place is
relatively well set up for guests, so I'm expecting you all to drop
by at some stage.  Oh, I have a garage space (shared tandem parking),
so Kathy has brought her car up from Orange County but it mostly stays
in the garage.  I'm still resisting having a television but I do have
a 23" Apple flat screen display and a TV card in the computer, so I'm
dangerously close to joining mainstream pop culture again if I just by
cable. Cartoon ;) 


I guess the big change in my life was my former boss deciding to resign
at the end of October to work out what he wanted to do next.  Four of
us ended up in charge of the informatics department in the interim and
we interviewed a number of vice president type people, which was pretty
interesting.  It's a very young field and no one has much idea of what's
going to happen next, so it's hard to find that type of person.  In the
interim I learnt a lot very quickly.  I think it was the first time in my
career where I went from expecting my boss to set the basic parameters of
what I'm doing, to having a boss (the chief scientific officer) who really
wants to hear what we should be doing.  They ended up putting myself
and one other person in charge of the department, which has been pretty
challenging but certainly helping me grow up.  The entire department is
about 40 people.  Exelixis itself continues to do well.  Probably easiest
to read the full story on Yahoo  EXEL
The stock price has been pretty depressed over the last six months since
September 11.  A combination of some pretty poor clinical results in
the industry in general, a major financial scandal at a New York biotech
company and general investor pessimism with the economy, the Middle East,
terrorism, simian President, etc. have been main influences.  We have
largely continued to deliver what we promised but of course an actual
product is years away after clinical trials.  We are still expecting
to have an actual drug ready for clinical trials by early next year
(according to our investor conference calls, of course I can't give you
any real information), and we have been focused on cancer.  It has been
very exciting working for a company growing up, and learning about the
whole drug discovery process in addition to all of the exotic biology
and more recently the regulatory process.  I still actually manage to get
programming done, and occasionally get to work on an interesting project
or find a gene.  It's clear there is going to be some very interesting
work done over the next few decades in health and agriculture.


I think I mentioned the love of my life in my last e-mail.  Kathy and I
have been dating now for about eight months and still haven't killed each
other, so it must be a good relationship right?  She is currently studying
(taking classes to prepare for going back and studying computer science,
I promise I didn't have any influence) and doing some photo editing
for a website along with a bit of contract programming.  We spend a
fair bit of time together living out of each others houses (I have
gotten to know her cats pretty well).  We have plans to come out to
Australia early next year (January 9th at this stage).    Kathy and I
met through a mutual friend Rachael last October properly (although
we had met before).  She had just returned from a well earnt post
dot-com vacation on a beach in Costa Rica.  Her family lives down
in Orange County.  I'm sure she would appreciate more visits to her
website http://www.kathyahn.com or find her (on the left) in this picture
Kathy pic


Yes that's American date format.  A lot of you have asked what it's like
over here at the moment.  It's hard to summarise succinctly but it's
definitely changed.  Airline travel is much more of a pain than it used
to be.  There is a much stronger police presence on public transport, and
in buildings etc. people are a lot more paranoid about strange packages.
Every now and then there is a warning about a threat to the bay bridge.
My building is very close to the airport so when you see a plane on
a strange trajectory it's always a little disconcerting.  A couple of
military helicopters flew by my office the other day.  I think what has
been most stunning has been the reaction overseas.  After a brief period
of (to quote the French President) "we are all Americans today", it seems
to be back to the usual low-grade anti-Americanism, "they deserved it",
"it's a result of American policy".  It's strange being a foreigner here.
On the one hand, I was raised in the country distrustful of American
culture but on the other hand it was a lot more personal realising that
someone wants to attack the place you call home.  There has also been
an enormous amount of analysis of what comes next with some pretty
plausible scenarios around some pretty unpleasant events, and as you
read daily saturation coverage of all of the material recovered from
Afghanistan from people plotting chemical attacks, biological attacks,
even investigating nuclear material, suddenly "just give peace a chance"
seems pretty naive.  I think that's the general sentiment in the US.
Enter San Francisco which has a very traditional left-wing liberal slant
relative to the rest of the country and of course you have a proportional
swing the other way. As one editorial noted, there is a segment of the
population overrepresented in San Francisco that seems to think Osama
just needs a big hug and some therapy.  I suspect not everything can be
solved with the carrot approach.  What is probably more alarming is the
pretty sharp reaction against privacy.  The government pretty quickly
gave itself a lot of new powers and no one dares question them lest they
look unpatriotic (there was a near riot in congress the other day as
everyone rushed to condemn the 9th circuit appeals court which had ruled
that "under god" was not constitutional in the pledge of allegience for
a country with separation of church and state).  It is a really tough
question how you stop a bunch of people prepared to die in the name of
God who are living in the middle of an open democratic society without
monitoring anything.  It's had an interesting spillover effect into
other areas too - eco terrorism is lying low, even the infamous militias
(e.g Mitchigan militia) in the US are showing declining memberships.
People haven't destroyed any genetically engineered crops lately for
fear of being labelled terrorists.  Crime in New York even decined.
It's been a very odd year.


I'm still having a lot of fun in San Francisco.  I have a good collection
of Australian and American friends, there still seems to be a regular
stream of visitors, we spend a lot of time it seems hanging out at
restaurants (think "Friends" with slightly less lighting and more fog).
I still like recreational bike riding up big hills, or curling up in the
sun in a park with a good book or  the New York Times.  There are less
conventional forms of recreation around here too, it seems everyone is
building a website still in their spare time, there are lots of events
on in the city (gay pride parade tomorrow) etc.  I spend a lot of time
reading nonfiction, I think I'm trying to work out partly what I want
to do with the rest of my life and it seems like there are so many
interesting options, and there is going to be so much happening in the
next few decades that it's hard to sit still sometimes and it's fun
just reading about all of the possibilities.  I guess I'm still very
optimistic about what our lives will bring, the current ills in the
world notwithstanding.

Travel and staying in touch

I need to go back to Australia at short notice for my INS interview,
probably sometime in the next two or three months (Yes Toto they do
schedule the interview in Australia so I can stay here in SF).  I will
be back in Australia early new year when my sister is expecting to add
a new tier to the family tree, and probably Germany late August England
early September, so it would be good to see you!  I hope you are all
doing well, thanks for all of the e-mail updates and bugging me when I'm
slow to reply, I only have 2000 pieces of e-mail at the moment which is
not too bad ;)