Review: Google and the World Brain

The story of Google Books is pretty astounding. The tech, the speed, the turning-the-book-industry-upside-down. As the best one-liner in the BBC/ARTE/ZDF/etc documentary, Google and the World Brain, had it: ‘if you do something illegal on such a massive scale, you can get away with it’. 


Review of ‘Inside Fortress Bill’ on BBC Radio 4

The point about global governance is that it ain’t a government. It’s just a jumble of people, organisations and states doing things that constitute governance. This includes very rich people essentially providing global public goods like healthcare. The Gates Foundation is a great example of this – in the absence of sufficient WHO/UN spending on health provision, the foundation steps up, with vastly larger budgets. But what does this mean for the private-public divide? Who’s accountable to who? Should global health governance really be set by the whims of a very very wealthy couple?

This radio programme (available until 10 January) was billed as a documentary in which “Katie Derham takes a ‘warts and all’ look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and examines the immense political power and global influence that it now wields.”

Except she didn’t really. She gathered a few critiques (relying heavily on Laurie Garrett of the Council for Foreign Relations) and put some of them to senior staff at the foundation.

They responded as you’d expect: acknowledging that improvements could be made, yet not dealing with the real issue about private foundations – they’re unaccountable to the people.

As the description of the programme put it (which was far more interesting and cutting than the actual interviews): 

“[Gates’ philanthropy] is a sharp contrast with his former persona of ruthless businessman flaunting competition law, buying off rivals and pursuing his goals with a vengeance. Critics believe his market-led philosophies can distort the picture, allowing Governments to be let off the hook, causing a brain drain in countries where they are backing aid, and the way that funds are distributed seems to be at the whim of the co-chairs who are beyond any form of accountability.”

A few points of interest from the programme below.

On the foundation…

  • the money is, of course, staggering: Gates has given $26.1bn, Buffett $36bn. 
  • the foundation sees itself as a catalyst – leveraging its funds by partnering with governments, corporations (which led it to Monsanto, upsetting many)…
  • …and it leverages Bill, too. His media value brings attention to stories otherwise untold. 
  • it places a strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship (as befits its $500m campus, which the presenter shrugged off as ‘Bill’s own money’ – except that the foundation is Bill’s own money too, so that distinction doesn’t make sense)
  • and it places a high focus on tech solutions, such as spending on vaccine research that wouldn’t come from big pharma (e.g. leprosy, TB)
  • as the CEO put it: “we believe in capitalism as an effective approach to allocating resources in a society”


  • Medecins Sans Frontieres choose not to accept funding from the foundation; a ‘strategic decision to keep some form of independence’ and they had ‘concerns about engagement of private sector and resulting conflicts of interest’ (MSF spokeswoman)
  • a majority of funding for global health programmes comes from the foundation, which leads to tremendous vulnerability for associated programmes and fields (Garrett)
  • what matters in global health is is increasingly decided by a small group of Americans in Seattle (Garrett). Ultimately the foundation answers to Bill and Melinda Gates and Bill Gates Snr.
  • “previously you trusted governments to do development, but now things have completely changed” (spokesman of a charity funded by GF) – has it?
  • ‘it shares very little substantive info on what it’s doing and how it’s work is going’ (GiveWell spokesman)


  • there is a ‘responsibility for all of us to hold them to account; for us to help them succeed and stop them doing crazy things that billionnaires sometimes do’ (Matthew Bishop of The Economist and author of Philanthrocapitalism)
  • at least Bill Gates is spending, but perhaps he needs competition from another foundation – perhaps a Larry Ellison or a Steve Jobs Foundation might have done things differently (Matthew Bishop)


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On the power of imagery, addictive health behaviours and sustaining life: @designourtomorrow fun in Toronto

I spent last Saturday in the still-leafy, gloriously sun-lit campus of the University of Toronto. We crammed into Convocation Hall for the Design Our Tomorrow Conference.

Remarkably, the conference actually lived up to its billing as being basically like TED, but, well, free. Quite an extraordinary roster of speakers. Three best bits noted below.

#1 Edward Burtynsky (Photographer, TED Prize winner)

His goal is to make stuff more visible. The stuff we use all the time, but never really see. Man’s battle with nature. He’s redefining the sublime with photographs of quarries, of giant rubbish yards, of vast open cast mines, of road systems and, perhaps most amazingly of all, of oil. The picture below is of the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Recommend leafing (?) through his website – lots to look at. This video is from an exhibition of his Oil photos.

#2: Aza Raskin (Co-founder Massive Health and Fast Company ‘Master of Design’ 2011) 

Aza, formerly Creative Lead at Firefox, talked about his new project – making good health behaviours addictive. He talked about the standard behaviour change difficulties with healthy behaviours – most importantly, the lack of instant feedback for good behaviours (as opposed to the  glorious instant rewards of eating a doughnut, for example) – and his thoughts on how to create a feedback loop.

Their first experiment is The Eatery, a smartphone app which abandons all ideas of calorie counts and nutrition guides, insteady relying on peer feedback. With the app, you snap the food you’re eating and rate it on a scale of ‘Fat’ to ‘Fit’. Then everyone else in your network rates it too, providing instant feedback on the healthiness of that food. Call it Dieting 2.0, perhaps. 

#3: Eric Chivian (Nobel laureate and Founder, Center for Health and Global Environment)

Felt a little sorry for the lady from Foursquare who had to follow this guy: the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Harvard Prof who spoke movingly on his next challenge, having already helped avert nuclear war.

As founder of the Center for Health and Global Environment, he’s trying to get us to take biodiversity seriously, given that human life depends on it. He told stories of what science might learn from pregnant polar bears (who don’t get osteroperosis despite not moving for six months), cone snails (who produce toxins we could replicate as perfect painkillers) and gastric breeding frogs (whose stomachs somehow don’t digest their children..absurd). Except we won’t learn anything from the frogs, since they’re now extinct, probably due to climate change. Dammit.

He recited Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot at the end of his lecture, after which anything else seems a little futile. His book is available in handy summary form (pdf).

Mad props to the organisers. Not sure how they did it, but it was, as Canada’s #1 Adjective has it, awesome.

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Notes on a brilliant analysis of Zimbabwe by @petergodwin at LSE this eve, speaking in aid of Council for Refugee Academics.

Crammed into one of the smaller lecture theatres at the LSE this evening, a mix of old and young, black and white visitors sat silently. They listened intently to the narrator of an astonishing story. 

Peter Godwin came across as a good journalist should – providing short, evidence based analysis, briskly pacing through the years since independence (as Zimbabwe), brushing aside what he called lazy pan-African themes wrongly applied to Zimbabwe. He dismissed the prevailing Western media’s narrative of Mugabe as crazy, insane, or simply as a frontman for a range of corrupt generals and officials. 

His version was humane, rational and despite everything, maybe even optimistic.

Below are some quick notes on the stuff I found interesting, paraphrased, but you’d do better to read his excellent books. When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is superb.

On writing:

 Writing in the first person and in present tense allows you to acknowledge the real path of events…the path of history is only inevitable when you look back.

On Mugabe

Mugabe has always been consistent. It was the world that changed around him. In the 1980 elections, Zanu were always likely to win free and fair elections, but the victory followed the threat of violence if the result went against Mugabe, setting a precedent that he would keep to again and again.

Mugabe used the dual smokescreens of the Cold War and the persistence of apartheid in South Africa. If you criticised Mugabe’s policies at home, he could spin it to claim you were a supporter of the Afrikaner government.

On South Africa:

There must have been a deal – SA would stop interfering in Zimbabwe, and in return Mugabe refused to allow the armed wing of the ANC to use Zimbabwe as a launch pad.

South Africa is key to the solution [of Zim]. It always has been. South Africa gave up support for Smith – his govt collapsed. It must withdraw its support for Mugabe.

What draws SA and Zim together is the bond of post-liberation governments: all of the Southern African liberation parties are still in power.

SA allows the international community to abrogate responsibility.

On the West:

When I worked for the Sunday Times, my editors put the Matabeleland killings on the front page for three weeks running. It was met with silence. Nothing changed…When the land invasions [of white-owned farms] started, suddenly this became international news.

People were massacred in Matabeleland in 1983/4: at the same time Mugabe received honorary degrees from several universities, including Edinburgh, and in 1987 was awarded a knighthood.

He claimed that there was considerable evidence worthy of a prosecution for crimes against humanity for the torture, rape and killings that followed the 2008 elections. It seems impossible that Zimbabwe, with its close ties to China, could be referred to the ICC by the Security Council.

The event was hosted by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics and LSE Ideas.

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Very special Miro exhibition @Tate Modern at the moment. Runs until September.

I thought Joan Miro was a woman. He wasn’t. Turns out Joan is the Catalan version of Juan, which Miro preferred. 

Tate have assembled a remarkable collection of his works in Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape. Some of them make sense. Some of them don’t. It’s intriguing. Some of them are beautiful. Some of them really aren’t. But that’s okay, cos I don’t think that’s what he was going for.

May 1968 is one of the beautiful, hopeful works. I think.

Made me think about Egypt.

And as seems essential with each Tate Modern exhibition now, there’s an excellent short film on Miro to go along with the exhibition.


The exhibition focuses on this idea that Miro was painting a way out of Franco’s dictatorship – painting as his weapon in the fight against Fascism and then dictatorship, painting as violence against a regime and as inspiration for a free Spain and his homeland, Catalonia. There’s some quite Romantic stuff in his early works. It’s all interesting stuff, although it’d be interesting to know a little bit more about the way the works were constructed.

The short copy alongside the paintings tend to describe the form, style or subject matter. All of which is nice, but left more questions unanswered. Which perhaps was the idea. I wanted to know more about his choice of colour, something never mentioned in the exhibition, which to me seems the most striking thing about his works – the combination of shape, form and colour. Many works only feature four or five colours – an ochre red and yellow (see the flag of Spain, solid blocks of black and white. And that Miro blue.

The Escape Ladder

Joan Miró, 'The Escape Ladder' (1940). The Museum of Modern Art / Scala, Florence © Successió Miró / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2011


Woman and birds


A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem)

Joan Miró A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress (Painting Poem) 1938

The burnt canvases are amazing: seen in this handy Guardian slide show.


For more, Tate blogs has a few good posts from the loving curators.



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Mini-review: Agnes Obel, Bush Hall, London, 12 April 2011. Tak Agnes!

A tall skinny blonde in a snug suit jacket climbs on stage, smiles at the audience, sits down at the piano and says, with a lilting slightly-stuttering Scandinavian accent,

‘Hello, good evening, my name is Agnes Obel and we’re going to play some songs for you’.

I’m basically already in love with her.

Aside from a few instrumental pieces reminescent of Michael Nyman, but not quite as enchanting, most of the set list is beautiful duets set to piano and cello. Very melancholic, with Cat Power reverb and delay settings on the microphone, it goes down terrifically well.

Following a standing ovation she and Anita Müller, her cello accompaniest, are drawn back on stage with terribly modest politesse, unsure of what to play for an encore:

‘Thank you so much…we haven’t discussed this at all!’ 

Spellbinding, other-worldly etc etc – she’s selling a lot of albums. Deservedly so.

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One hundred million sunflower seeds. Thank you @tate

Got a Tate membership for Christmas. Want to move in permanently. Bit cold in the Turbine Hall though.

However, the Turbine Hall does have this year’s Unilever exhibit in it. For 2010/2011 it’s a work by Ai Wei Wei, a Chinese artist who lived in New York for a bit, and is now based in Beijing, although he’s just had an office torn down there. Oops.

It’s called ‘Sunflower Seeds’.

(CC Giesenbauer)

It’s like a thick grey carpet on the floor of the back half of the Hall. You’d miss it but for the Tate-yellow signs and arrows.

After wandering around the outside of the field of seeds, I didn’t actually believe the accompanying description. I assumed that it couldn’t actually be man-made and that it was all a bit of a joke. Even after nosing around at it for quite a while. But then Tate are showing the wonderful film below alongside the exhibit. And it turns out it’s really real, which is pleasing.

(CC Mark Hogan)

When it first opened, visitors could walk across it, or roll in it – or count the seeds. But now it’s fenced off by a miniscule little fence, so it sits, undisturbed. More like a museum exhibit. A strange forbidden sea of sunflower seeds. And it doesn’t quite work, cos they’re so small and together so huge but you can’t get in amongst them to verify anything and it’s all a bit unreal.

 (CC. Loz Flowers) – Before the fence

In the film below, Ai Wei Wei talks about the project, and everything becomes clear. It comes across as a beautiful statement on globalisation – a representation of the vast quantity of trade between West and East (goods come one way, cash goes the other), and the individual stories of those involved. It reminds us of the entire process of production – and the sheer effort that went into getting one of those seeds here.

And there’s 100 million of them here. Apparently. Just like all the other stuff that comes from China. He’s helped us see, imagine, consider, ponder what we get from trade. As if you could see 100 million children’s toys, mobile phones, iPads, t-shirts and whatever else that we probably import every few months. And it’s a muse on those who actually work at the mining, casting, shaping, finishing and packing that stuff. I love art that asks you to think, and this work is just beautiful. The fact that British art authorities had to stop people walking on it due to concerns over porcelain dust seems only to make the story richer.

If you’re going to the exhibition (closes May 2011) then watch the film in the Hall. Otherwise, enjoy it here. Turn the sound up.