I am sitting on a bar stool. On the other side of a round metal table, the world’s second richest man is sipping a Diet Coke, eating french fries with his fingers and explaining the history of the polio vaccine. Bill Gates would still be the richest man in the world, if he didn’t keep giving his money away. Now, after donating $28bn to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which funds health, development and educational causes – he is down to his last $54bn.
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As I boarded the 5.50pm train from Paddington to Oxford yesterday, I regretted my foolish agreement to speak at the Oxford Union that night. I was never a debater as a student. I had found the formality and self-importance of the Cambridge Union in the 1980s unattractive, and instead put my spare energies into student journalism. But now, at last, I was going to have to clamber into black tie – and go through the whole rigmarole of “points of information” and “Mr President, I beg to oppose the motion”.
I think I only agreed, months ago, because I was aware the debate was taking place just before my book is published (it’s out on Monday), and I was working on the “any publicity” principle. But now I found myself heading for Oxford – knackered, unprepared, not even sure which side of the motion I was speaking on, and with my head full of images of jeering hoorays in white tie. Read more
In this week’s podcast: Political change in Brazil and Argentina, the midterm elections in the United States and Europe’s negotiations over debt and deficit. Read more
As soon as the American mid-term elections are over on Tuesday, attention will switch to the prospects for the next presidential election in November, 2012.
I first floated the idea that Sarah Palin might win the next presidential election in February last year. A lot of people thought I was joking – but I really did think it was a serious possibility. Lately I’ve begun to think I was a bit hysterical because – for all the publicity she gets – Sarah Barracuda has poor approval ratings. Some polls suggest that these are as low as 22%. Read more
After last week’s visit to the Shanghai Expo, I have been exchanging notes with fellow visitors. This has yielded three further insights:
1. I had been struck by the number of people in wheelchairs on the Expo sight. It is widely suspected that this is because many pavilions allow disabled people – or the extremely elderly – to jump the queues. Since the queues are so enormous, there is obviously a strong incentive to be old or in a wheelchair, or to be the able-bodied companion of one of the aforesaid categories. As a result you can not only rent wheelchairs outside the site of the Expo, you can even rent old people – who for a fee will allow themselves to be wheeled around. Read more
Anybody who talks regularly to Chinese officials will be familiar with the mantra that “China is a developing country”. But Shanghai, which I visited last week, mocks this modest description. With its eight-lane highways, its modern and efficient subway, its forest of neon-lit skyscrapers, giant new airport and chic hotels, China’s commercial capital is defiantly developed.
UK defence cuts, Middle East peace process and the Vatican bank’s frozen assets
In this week’s show, we hear from diplomatic editor James Blitz on the UK defence cuts, Tobias Buck in Jerusalem on the latest in the Middle East peace process, Christian Oliver on the currency wars and get the latest on the Vatican bank’s Italian court case from Guy Dinmore, hosted by David Blair.
They claim that by the time the Shanghai Expo closes, in about a week’s time, some 70m people will have visited since it opened at the beginning of May. I was a bit sceptical about that number. But having spent a few hours there, I can believe it. The queues of visitors from all over China are simply enormous. It usually takes around three or four hours to get into a popular pavilion, like the Italian or French ones.
The longest line, however, is for the Saudi pavilion. On an average day, it takes eight hours to get in. As an official visitor, I got to skip the queue and see what all the fuss was about. As one might expect, the Saudi pavilion is large and opulent. There is an impressive IMAX style film presentation about the country, projected onto vast walls, which you watch from a moving pavement. It was OK. I would definitely have queued twenty minutes to see it. Read more
America has its mid-term elections, France has its strikes and Britain has its austerity drive. But here in China (I’m in Shanghai), there is also very big political news. This week has seen the effective confirmation of the identity of China’s next president, when Hu Jintao steps down in 2012. It will be Xi Xinping – the senior Communist Party official who oversaw the Beijing Olympics. He has been tipped for the presidency for a couple of years. His appointment this week as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission – the civilian overseer of the military – is seen here as effective confirmation that he will indeed be the next president. The next prime minister, taking over from Wen Jiabao, is assumed to be Li Keqiang – although he apparently has health problems. Read more
If there was an informal European Union championship for street protest then Greece and France would be the two most regular winners. Greek and French workers have traditionally staged strikes and demonstrations with a gusto and frequency that puts their European rivals in the shade.