On the plus side, no one knows more about costly disasters than Bill Gates. His Microsoft Corp. is the provider of some of the world's worst products: unreliable, overpriced, underresearched. I've been through three major hurricanes and four Microsoft blue screens of death; I much preferred the hurricanes.
Gates proposes using giant "ocean-going tubs"--no, not aged cruise ship passengers--that would fight hurricanes by transferring warm water from the surface to the depths through a long tube. A second tube, he argues, could simultaneously suck cool water from the ocean floor to the surface. I kid you not.
Gates and a dozen other scientists and engineers have applied for a patent to use such vessels, which they say would collect water through waves breaking over the walls of the tub. Variations have the water driven downward by turbines, which would in turn generate electricity to suck up the cooler water.
Umm, where to begin?
Based on the Microsoft Windows Vista experience, here's how it will work. The tubs will cost a fortune. They will be all but impossible to operate. They won't work with the ships towing them. They will break down regularly. And so forth.
Gates thinks that up to 200 giant floating tubs could be placed strategically in the predicted path of a hurricane. Right there, he shows his ignorance. Anyone with half a brain knows that hurricanes almost never follow their predicted paths.
The tubs could apparently be designed to be reused or to sink in place and decompose underwater. By a curious coincidence, that's what's happening to my computer with Vista on it, dropped in the middle of the English Channel on a recent international ferry trip. (Not true; wishful thinking.)
The cost of these absurd tubs--what might be described as the sinking funds--would be raised by selling insurance to coastal residents whose risk would be reduced by using the new system. Another brilliant idea. Those folk have shown time and again that they are all too ready to pay the cost of their decision to live dangerously. They wouldn't dream of asking everyone else to pay for their reckless thoughtlessness.
The patent applications filed by Gates and the mad scientists also suggest that the tubs could stir up the nutrient-rich sediment on ocean floors to promote plant and animal growth in environmentally degraded areas. Terrific. Now the egomaniac is going to destroy the food supply.
What drives people like Bill Gates and other bigheads of epic proportions? Their hubris surpasseth all understanding. Sir Richard Branson sold some "Tubular Bells" LPs back in the 1960s, on the strength of which he now operates a train company and plans to send people into outer space. Bono did a spot of off-tune warbling for 20 years and now thinks he can solve global hunger. A lifetime spent selling shoddy computer products has persuaded Bill Gates to think he can control the weather and improve the food supply.
The worst part is that people buy this nonsense. If it weren't so depressing, I suppose it might be funny. All I know is that. if Bill Gates thinks he can reduce the effect of hurricanes, insurers would do well to start tripling their premiums.
ROGER CROMBIE is a Bermuda-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®.
September 1, 2009
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