Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Hazardous Waste of Time

I suppose that a corollary to the harsh realities that Desmond Tutu tried to reveal to his audience at the World Economic Forum is that the rich and mighty really ought to have better things to do with their time than idle away half a week in Davos. Nevertheless, it does not appear that any actual damage was done there; and the risk of such damage was probably pretty low. Unfortunately, it is unclear that we can say the same about the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Long Beach this week, where matters of "cool" trump more dismal issues, such as economic crisis. The problem is that "cool" also tends to trump "common sense," which makes for a greater risk of damage.

While Bill Gates usually has a pretty solid grounding in common sense, at least where his philanthropic work is concerned, in the setting of TED he let the cool get the better of him. Here is how the BBC reported on his presentation there:

Mr Gates' stunt was to drive home the serious message of malaria prevention.

With the issue being high on the agenda of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the former software boss told the crowd in Long Beach, California "Not only poor people should experience this."

While he asked the audience "How do you stop a deadly disease that is spread by mosquitoes?", Mr Gates also noted that more money is spent finding a cure for baldness than eradicating malaria.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged nearly $170 million (£118m) to develop a vaccine for malaria.

During his presentation, Mr Gates released several mosquitoes into a startled crowd.

TED organisers confirmed the mosquitoes did not carry malaria but they did give the audience food for thought. It was described as "an amazing TED moment".

Meanwhile the insect release which was first reported on Twitter, the micro blogging service, lit up with comments.

Loic LeMeur of Seesmic tweeted "We're all leaving the room and getting sick."

"That's it, I'm not sitting up front anymore," tweeted Pierre Omidyar who founded eBay.

TED curator Chris Anderson quipped that when a video of the talk is posted on its website it would be headlined "Gates releases more bugs into the world."

The reason I raised the question of risk of damage is that mosquitoes can be responsible for allergic reactions, as well as malaria. Dr. Daniel More provided the following summary for a Web page on

More severe reactions -- rather than the typical itchy red bump experienced by most people as a result of a mosquito bite -- occur less commonly. These may result in blistering rashes, bruises, or large areas of swelling at the bite sites. People who experience extremely large areas of swelling after a mosquito bite (such as swelling of most of an arm or leg, for example) have been dubbed as having "Skeeter Syndrome."

In rare situations, some people may experience anaphylaxis after being bitten by mosquitoes. Other people may have experienced whole body urticaria and angioedema (hives and swelling), or worsening of asthma symptoms after being bitten. Typically, these symptoms occur within minutes after a mosquito bite, compared to Skeeter Syndrome, which may take hours to days to occur.

Did Gates know about these possible reactions when he was preparing his "amazing TED moment?" I decided to consider how I would deal with the question of how much I knew about mosquito bites, had I been brash enough to consider the sort of stunt he pulled. I found that typing "mosquito" into my Firefox search window induced it to suggest that I add the keyword "bites." I took that suggestion and fed the search to both Google and Live. The page was the fifth entry on my Google results page, meaning that, for the window size I use, it was "above the fold." It was therefore the first result I checked, and that is how I found the above paragraphs. On my Live results page that same result ranked in tenth place, which would put it "below the fold" for just about any user. On the other hand the top of the page included a "Related searches" link to "mosquito bite allergy," where the page was ranked third; but, even with that high rank, it was "below the fold" because of all the space at the top occupied by "Sponsored sites" links! So, if Gates had not known about possible allergic reactions to mosquito bites, it may well have been because Live didn't direct him to that information efficiently enough!

Last year I praised Gates for his efforts to bring a sense of reality to the World Economic Forum agenda in Davos. This year I did not see any reports of his being in Davos at all, and I would be happy to learn that he had decided to give that event a pass. However, I would have preferred it had he not checked his personal sense of reality at the door before going up on stage at TED!

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