In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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(7 of 17)

Despite this record, Gates is not wearing a seat belt. (A dilemma: Is it too uncool to use mine?) He rarely looks at you when he talks, which is disconcerting, but he does so when he's driving, which is doubly disconcerting. (I buckle up. As his mother and others have learned, it's not always prudent to compete.) He turns into a dark drive with a chain-link fence that slides open as the Lexus approaches. It's nearing midnight, and the security guard looks a bit startled.

Gates' home of the future has been under construction for more than four years, and is not expected to be completed until this summer. Built into a bluff fronting Lake Washington, it has 40,000 sq. ft. of space and will cost about $40 million. Looming against the night sky are three connected pavilions of glass and recycled Douglas fir beams, looking a bit like a corporate conference center masquerading as a resort.

Gates swings into a vaulted 30-car garage carved into the hillside. In the corner, like a museum piece, sits his parents' red Mustang convertible that he drove as a kid. "The first pavilion is mainly for public entertaining," he says as he picks his way past construction debris down four levels of stairs. Despite the hour, three technicians are working in the ground-floor reception hall, with its view of the Olympic Mountains across Lake Washington, adjusting two dozen 40-in. monitors that will form a flat-screen display covering an entire wall. "When you visit, you'll get an electronic pin encoded with your preferences," he explains. "As you wander toward any room, your favorite pictures will appear along with the music you like or a TV show or movie you're watching. The system will learn from your choices, and it will remember the music or pictures from your previous visits so you can choose to have them again or have similar but new ones. We'll have to have hierarchy guidelines, for when more than one person goes to a room." Like Gates himself, it's all very fascinating, fun and a little intimidating.

Moving into the center pavilion, Gates shows off what will be the library. A mammoth carved wooden dome hangs just above the floor, waiting to be raised into the cupola. (I wonder: Does this grand chamber dispel my fear that he will relegate print to museum status? Or inadvertently confirm it?) He has hired a New York rare-books dealer to stock the library for him. His current reading is eclectic. "On a recent trip to Italy," he says, "I took the new Stalin biography, a book about Hewlett-Packard, Seven Summits [a mountaineering book by Dick Bass and the late Disney president Frank Wells] and a Wallace Stegner novel." He's also a fan of Philip Roth's, John Irving's, Ernest J. Gaines' and David Halberstam's, but his all-time favorite novels are the schoolboy standards The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby and A Separate Peace. A nearby room will be filled by an enormous trampoline; at the office he sometimes surprises colleagues by joyfully leaping to touch the ceiling, and he finds bouncing on a trampoline as conducive to concentration as rocking.

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