Great engineers (according to the BBC)

I smiled when TED gave a slot to a boy who they hailed as an engineering hope for Africa when he had managed to follow plans for a small farm windmill and assembled it from standard parts… That’s not actually innovation, I am afraid.


But today on Radio 4’s women’s hour we heard of young british woman who had made an evaporative cooler (yip – putting a wet blanket over a box, with a lid). This was hailed as a design breakthrough. I couldn’t see it, and I couldn’t see, either, how useful this would be given that her first (yes, she’s a multi award winner) prize wining design was for a wheel-barrow to carry — you guessed it — water!

An initial wonder concerns whether African’s can really have failed to develop the wheel barrow, or if, perhaps more likely, the tracks they are carrying water over make the alternative of carrying one bucket n your head better than pushing 5 on a barrow).

But aside from that, what use is a terribly inefficient, and ineffective passive evaporative cooler going to be in an environment where water has to be carried several miles, 5-gallons at a time?

Given that neither the ‘wheel barrow’ nor the ‘water power refrigerator’ are even engineering or design breakthoughs, let alone inventions, this seems to set a low bar for aspiring female engineers. But maybe that’s the point.

Drugs policy comes home to roost: failed states, violence and crime

America’s internal and external war on drugs has had many effects, from sentencing young men to death (from AIDs contracted when raped while jail for drug non-offenses), to generating 100s of billions of dollars for violent criminals, and corrupting police forces and even armys.

After 30 years, the use of drugs is exactly where it was when LSD and other drugs were legal (yes, they used to be legal – and society didn’t collapse: wonders never cease). Few people wish to use drugs, and those who do… guess what: they are.

But it now appears that America’s war on drugs is about to create another narco-state (in addition to Afghanistan, and much of South America). This time right on the border: Mexico!

Still time to fix all of this, and simply too: Just decriminalize all drugs – the gangs will dry up within 6 months, farmers will go back to making food, crime will plummet as addicts no longer need to steal to feed their habit, drug deaths will drop by 90% as bad doses are eliminated, and drug use will remain the problem it always has been: a hard choice for a tiny minority of people.

Bill Gates and education

We owe  many of the enduring institutions of our civilization to a handful of businessmen who ended their lives with large amounts of capital and gave it to the future in the form of charitable education and research investments: Rockefeller, Mellon, Carnegie, Wellcome*, and more recently Howard Hughes, and JP Getty.  Bill and Melinda Gates control the worlds two largest fortunes, but have a different vision than these great pioneers of philanthropy. The Gates foundation has two core beliefs:

  1. The world would be better if people were more able and skilled.
  2. Education and health are the source (rather than partially being results) of variation in how able people are, and many skills they have. 

For this reason they are throwing 100 billion precious dollars into Africa and education. I believe that this is one of the biggest tragedies of our century. There are several very important things that can only be achieved with the concerted investment of  billions of dollars in one project: Creating new drugs, life forms, new manufacturing processes and materials to name a few. Without a new round of investment in the future of discovery, we will all be poorer.

Of course if Gates was right, and preventing malaria or vaccinating against AIDS and re-jigging schools would make everyone as intelligent and diligent as he is, then that would unquestionably be an even bigger stimulus for world development. But I think they are wrong. Most of what they see as causes, are consequences. Poverty, like wealth reflects ability, and much of social chaos is a consequence of a low drive to cooperate. Experiments in intermediate “causes” of wealth such as schools are therefore invaluable for understanding the causal chain.

It was therefore sad, but revealing (in the sense that we might see that what we are doing is not working and, like a good scientist, stop and think) to read in this New Yorker article about just how wrong are the assumptions of the foundation.

A failed school recently  received  a million-dollar intervention from the Gates Foundation, making the school more ‘intimate’, and much more expensive to run. The result? Learning fell, gangs increased, and, thankfully, half the parents pulled their children from the school.

Now, if you were the Gates foundation, and you found that adding $1,000,000 and your vision to a school wrecked it so bad that people fled, might you not rethink? It’s not to late to stop, and to change. Warren Buffett: If you are reading this – take your money and put it into a Wikipedia-based global discovery laboratory. More in another post about how this could drive costs out of science while at same time creating an invisible hand to coordinate and drive innovation and wealth just like the industrial and scientific revolutions did before.

*Wellcome Trust is an interesting case: The trust simply owned shares in a for profit pharmaceutical company. At the time of his death, everyone thought Wellcome had made a horrible error, forgetting to put the company inside the trust. At the time (in the midst of the last global depression), the company was worth a few million in todays money: Barely a month of two of grants from todays trust! What happened to turn this tiny ‘mistake’ into a billion pound charitable behemoth? The US branch of the company had an innovative CEO who 10x’d the company, then doubled it again! The charity despite receiving income only from a tax-paying entity, rode this prosperity to its present position.