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Monday, February 13, 2006

Bill Gates Redux

We don’t have to like Bill Gates, and we certainly don’t have to like Microsoft, but we do have to admit that Gates has changed. He’s making an impact by doing fine work as a philanthropist, and occasionally he’s even right on technical issues.

One correct bit of technical vision goes back about 20 years, when I was attending a meeting of the late, lamented Boston Computer Society (b. 1977, d. 1996), at which Bill Gates was the featured speaker. At this point I couldn’t remember very much about that meeting, but I do remember the Gates vision of a software world without applications. It struck me as supremely right that we shouldn’t have to launch Word in order to compose text, Excel in order to calculate, Photoshop in order to edit an image, and Lisp in order to program. Of course there have been many lame attempts at software suites and even integrated applications, but that’s not the point. The vision — still in the future today — is the software equivalent of writing on a whiteboard, where you just write, and your mind does whatever needs to be done without partitioning itself into a word processor, a spreadsheet, an image editor, and a programming language.

Much more recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been funding a variety of educational initiatives, including a drive for smaller schools. While there are certain virtues to having large schools, those virtues almost always come down to providing resources that small schools can’t afford. And there are other solutions to the resource problem, including the Internet and community-based activities. Gates is right about small schools:
Many high schools are just too big. Over the last half-century, average school enrollment has increased fivefold. These large, impersonal institutions are failing to teach young people what they need to know to lead meaningful lives, succeed in college, and earn a decent living. This is disproportionately true for children from low-income neighborhoods. Students in large high schools also report having few significant relationships with teachers and mentors, in large part because teachers see so many students every day that it is almost impossible to build any sort of relationship with most of them.
Finally, the Gates Foundation has been involved with important world-health ventures that focus on underserved communities, reportedly including Partners in Health, the organization founded by Paul Farmer. The stated mission of PIH is:
to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair. We draw on the resources of the world’s leading medical and academic institutions and on the lived experience of the world’s poorest and sickest communities.

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