Happy flying, Charles Simonyi
I had two things in common with Charles Simonyi when I lived in Seattle in 1999 and 2000: an interest in flying, and a friendship with Michael Kinsley, who introduced us at lunch one day in a dining hall on the Microsoft campus. The distance in all other ways was vast.
Simonyi was one of the company's true titans, second only to the incomparable BillG on the general-esteem scale. According to a recent article in Technology Review, Gates himself calls Simonyi "one of the great programmers of all time." I was a lowly short-term contractor at Microsoft, going to work each day adorned with the "orange badge of shame," the orange-colored ID for temp workers, as opposed to the blue badge for "real" employees. For six months I was on the team preparing the next upgrade to Word -- a program Simonyi had invented. From the (very nice) house my wife and I had rented in Seattle's Leschi district, on the slopes of the west bank of Lake Washington, we could see Simonyi's (futuristic and stupendous) destination-spa/home being finished on the opposite shore. Simonyi has frequently dated Martha Stewart. I have been more fortunate in my love life.
Although Simonyi could quickly see when we met that we had nothing to discuss on the tech front (or the gracious-living front, for that matter), on several occasions we talked aviation. I'm not sure whether he actually owned a jet (or jets) by that point or simply had them available to him, but he trained and traveled in small jets frequently. One day he called with an invitation about as attractive as any I had received. Would I like to fly with him after work from Boeing Field, in downtown Seattle, to Monterey, California, for a dinner event -- and then fly back? I did not say "Duh!" or immediately yell "OF COURSE I WOULD!!!" but instead said calmly, trying not to sound too manic, "Yes, that would be nice, thanks."
The event turned out to be something called the "Billionaires' Dinner," hosted annually by the literary agent John Brockman. (A site about the dinners and the tech-magnate guests has a photo of Simonyi on its splash page.) Simonyi himself was even then an actual billionaire. I'm not sure that anyone else in the crowd was, though they weren't hurting. Simonyi's jet also turned out to come equipped with two professional pilots. But they let me sit in a little jumpseat behind them on the flights down and back, and they were happy to let Simonyi take the controls, swapping seats with one of the pilots, for much of each flight. If there is a more beautiful 1000-mile stretch of scenery to fly over than the one between Seattle and Monterey, I'm not sure what it would be. I found every minute in the airplane entrancing -- hey, the dinner was nice too -- and I noticed that Simonyi seemed at least as excited. I considered him considerate, to think of asking me along for the ride.
So as he went into space yesterday from Kazakhstan, I did not mainly think "dilettante" or "the thrill-seeking idle rich." I thought: Here is a man fortunate enough to fulfill, for $20 million+, one of his life's dreams. Easter Day wishes of safe travels to him and his colleagues in their small craft.