"Hey, where's the annual Darren letter? People around the globe are
sitting on pins and needles...  -Kelly  "

Life has been very eventful since letter 16. (*)

First of all, sorry for not being more diligent with the email, by my
estimation it's been a good year and a half, and my nephew Luke is now
about 17 months old.  I have been too busy and life seems to have been
too uneventful for any major reports, but that all changed this week,
so now seems like a perfect time to say hello and I'm going to be leaving
Exelixis in a few weeks.

Since we last caught up like this, Exelixis has gone through a lot of
changes and this week half of my group including myself was let go.
The remainder will be disappearing somewhere into the computational
chemistry group.  It came as a bit of a shock, there was clearly something
going on but I was a surprised that it affected me.  It was only a year
ago that I had to help the company lay off others for the second time and
that was the most painful moment of my career.  I think on Wednesday at
the point where I worked out I was likely to be affected, shortly after
annoyed surprise ca,me a great sense of relief and that is probably the
strongest indication that I'm ready for a change.  I have three more
weeks to leisurely wrap things up at Exelixis and a number of months of
paid time to actively research the next phase of my career.  I have been
restless for several years and thinking very hard about other things I
would like to do in life, so this is in a sense quite welcome and the
most cost-effective way to change jobs.  I'm still pissed off though.
In the big scheme of things it's not totally surprising because Exelixis
needs to spend a lot of money on clinical trials in the coming years
and effectively eliminating research is a smart strategy.  I would
personally have trimmed back the chemistry group as well but there was
a lot of politics involved and basically my division was the victim.

What next?  I have had thought for years about either getting back into
something more academic or moving to a field where I can have a big
impact.  I have experience running a large computing group (mid-2003 I
was made director of the computational biology group), and have a pretty
thorough understanding of the pharmaceutical pipeline now.  I also
think a lot of the research in genomics has become somewhat vacuous.
After the human genome was completed, there hasn't been a clear goal to
replace it and it's murky what the next biggest impact of research is.
People certainly talk about the impact of the human genome on clinical
trials where most of the money is getting spent now, but politics and
and inertia, not to mention our lack of understanding have limited that
field despite the rhetoric.  I'm frustrated because Exelixis could
have made that happen, but a lot of the synergy between research and
drug discovery gets caught up in the vast cultural chasm between two
disciplines of very different ages and mindsets.  I could get carried
away on this topic so I will stop now, but it's worth thinking about.

My dream job?  Making synthetic life.  I think there are going to be
some really interesting engineering problems coming up in biology and
there will be certainly computing component designing them.  Traditional
biology smashes things and looks at the parts and there is job security
there but some exciting developments around topics like DNA synthesis
and transplanting whole pathways/processes into different organisms.
This might sound scary if you are afraid of genetics, but transforming
biotechnology into more of engineering discipline is going to be critical
for our ongoing evolution and there's nothing inherently good or evil
about it.  If it gives you any comfort, there are a million ways of
breaking a complex organisms and not many ways of improving it that life
hasn't already stumbled across in 4 billion years of evolution.  We can
do things life isn't interested in doing that are in our own interests
though and therein lies the potential.  I might also get interested in
pharmaceutical again once my cynicism wears off, my early educational
interests were around helping people through medicine.  I wouldn't even
rule out traditional computing, if I thought there was a field that was
interesting and would make a difference.

Before all of this happened, I would have summarised my life as
very pleasant.  I was still learning a lot about management at
Exelixis and enjoying running a very smart and high functioning group
at work.  (Incidentally, if you want to hire a team of very experienced
computational biologists, I know where you might be a lot of find one).
I decided last year that I needed some spare time projects (because my
life wasn't full enough :) and decided to learn German and get back to
the gym regularly.  I have been taking classes twice a week for about 18
months and seeing a tutor periodically and it's a wonderful adjunct to my
technical life.  It does all sorts of interesting things to your brain
which is what I was interested in experiencing.  I also have a covert
spare time writing project which may or may not see daylight depending
on how it turns out.  That's all I'll say.  The gym has been a great
experience.  I have a wonderful personal trainer and as a result am  in
pain most of the time, but the physical discipline is really rewarding.
I'm on to my third bike in San Francisco having had the second stolen,
but it still the most joyful and cost-effective way of getting around
and I'm hoping I can continue to be without a car.

Lots of travel in my life past and future.  I was in England earlier
this year for a lovely wedding and will be again in September.  I have
kept to my tradition of end of year travel (Australia end of this year),
but wasn't in London or Melbourne end of 2003.  I ended up in Singapore,
as part of a round the world trip through Japan, South Africa (for
another wedding in Cape Town :) and London.  Apart from the fact that
those are all stunning places to be, I was really struck by the sheer
diversity of people and things going on simultaneously around the planet.
It's really easy to get caught up in your own society and it's point of
view, but to leave Tokyo and arrive Christmas Eve in Singapore with a
totally different climate and culture was mind expanding.  Standing a
week later on the tip of Africa was a totally different experience again.

I'm still living in the same beautiful Victorian house in Lower Haight in
San Francisco which I bought in 2002 which I appreciate more and more.
My computing infrastructure underwent a big migration down to a closet
(my web server had been rebooted only three times in that time, twice
by accident and once by grid failure) and there are now two futons for
guests.  A film crew (friends of Antonia) were in town to make part of a
documentary on marriage (you need a gay angle on marriage nowadays to stay
current) and one of the crew members picked up one more persons so we came
home last Saturday to house full of people.  As always guests are welcome.
Red wine, English cheese and rosella fruit chutney are always welcome,
but there's always a bed here for you chutney or no chutney.

Antonia? I hear you ask.  I have been pretty spare with details about
my romantic life lately, mainly because there hasn't been anything
certain to report for the last few years.  I'm not sure if it's me or
a generation thing (someone wrote an article about San Francisco called
Generation Single recently), but it's been a while since I was definite
about anything romantic.  I'm in an interesting experiment at the moment
with someone really nice, complex and interesting who is really different
to me and I think we like each other a lot but are a little undecided
about whether it will work out.  I don't think she would disagree with
that characterisation.  I'm learning to enjoy the process/journey and
have no complaints about my romantic life past and present, I've been
with some very wonderful people, it's certainly been an educational
experience, but that definitive outcome still seems elusive.

It's a beautiful day outside here, so I'm heading outside and I'll be
impressed if you read this far, it's kind of long :) my phone number and
contact details remain unchanged from last letter (415 5059354 - my phone
itself suffered major structural damages falling from my bicycle the other
day, but we have phone number portability finally :), so stay in touch

Love Darren 

(ps, this e-mail address was recently spam compromised
and I've only used it for personal e-mail, so please practice safe
computing. Install a firewall like zonealarm (free), remember Internet
Explorer will probably result in your credit card details getting stolen
(I recommend firefox) and don't use outlook or outlook express, they are
fish bait).  Call me if you want advice.  

(* pps - if I'm inflicting
this on you for the first time, you can catch up on past history at
http://www.feb17.org/me/letters/ )