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Sunday, November 19, 2006


In praise of Bill Gates (and a suggestion for him)

I find Microsoft products distinctly unimpressive, and as a company Microsoft stands out for its ruthless and frequently illegal business practices in a world in which they have plenty of competition for ruthlessness and illegality. And the fact that Gates has billions to give away is, in part if not in large part, a direct consequence of his business practices.

Having said all that, Gates at least understands his position as a privileged American and, while he's not doing anything to change the fundamentals of the world economic divide, at least he's using his money to try to alleviate some of the symptoms, as we first learned about here back in 2004. Today's San Jose Mercury News features a lengthy interview with Gates in which he touches on that subject:

Q So you are saying those of us who live in the United States exist in a sort of bubble in terms of not understanding the suffering and problems of those in the developing world.

A Absolutely. I've said many times that if we just re-sorted the world so that you randomly lived next to the majority [and knew] how the majority of people lived, you'd say, "Oh my God, her baby just died of malaria; my God, look at that dirty water." And the IQ applied to this thing would be a thousand times bigger, because whenever you describe this to people, or they go out to these areas, they come away very affected.

Most people don't see these conditions at all. Do they know what visceral leishmaniasis is, that it kills 300,000 people a year? The way (the news media) documents things like plane crashes . . . I don't understand why are they running those articles, because that's not the tragedy that happened that day; it's the ongoing set of diseases, some of which are unique to these tropical countries.
I wonder if Bill knows that there is at least one country where medical research isn't driven by the profit motive:
"They don't really like patents. They like medicine. Cuba's drug pipeline is most interesting for what it lacks: grand-slam moneymakers, cures for baldness or impotence or wrinkles. It's all cancer therapies, AIDS medications, and vaccines against tropical diseases.

"That's probably why US and European scientists have a soft spot for their Cuban counterparts. Everywhere north of the Florida Keys, once-magical biotech has become just another expression of venture-driven capitalism. Leave it to the Cubans to make it revolutionary again."
The Gates Foundation could find no better place to invest its $1+ billion/year, no place where they could get a better "ROI," than in Cuba. Needless to say, that isn't going to happen, not least of all because it would be illegal.

Incidentally, Gates was in town to collect a philanthropy award at the (San Jose) Tech Museum. It was exactly one year ago that Cuban scientist Dr. Vicente Verez Bencomo was honored, in absentia (courtesy of the U.S. government), at those same awards ceremonies. Dr. Bencomo, who no doubt has a budget substantially less than $1 billion/year, nevertheless developed an incredibly important vaccine against Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib), a bacteria that can cause meningitis and pneumonia and is estimated to be responsible for 200,000-700,000 childhood deaths annually around the world.

I can't end without sharing one light moment from the interview. Asked his opinion about Google, Gates had this to say:

They're in this honeymoon phase of, Google can do anything at all times. If it was rumored they were doing pizza, you'd think it was going to be zero calories and free.
Hey, have you heard? Free pizza!

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