To Bill, with thanks

Call me woefully naive, but I just don't see a downside to last week's disbursement from the Gates Foundation's Santa bag. Many tech-watching folk waxed cynical about the timing of the Gates Millennium Scholarships announcement—$1 billion for minority students of engineering, education, math, or science—in light of the discovery of yet another collection of security holes in Hotmail and WebTV and whatnot.

Let 'em wax. Speaking as someone for whom scholarships meant the difference between a decent four-year college and no college at all, I suspect that most of the 1,000-plus deserving young men and women winning these awards don't give a damn which of Bill's business practices is paying the bills. This is as it should be. College is strenuous enough if you do it right; walking out with a six-figure debt over your head just ain't—trust me—the motivator for excellence you'd think it is. If you can walk in at all.

Back in the day, I accepted scholarships from companies like IBM, which at the time was invested in South Africa. (This is back in the days of apartheid, kids. Remember apartheid? It's what people in South Africa had before they changed their minds and adopted a fairer and more egalitarian constitution than the one the United States uses. But I digress.) Despite the mewling of various OS bigots (send the flame mail to the usual address, boys), apartheid was much worse than insufficient support for the open-source movement. I held my nose, took the money, and had a hand in every protest, sit-in, and shantytown I could hook up with. Inconsistent? Yes. Just like life—constant compromises and choices.

Last week I met up with a college friend for a bout of beer and introspection. My friend—who, if memory serves, was in much the same scholarship boat as I—is now living a comfortable middle-class Seattle life in The Industry. He'd just gotten an interesting, high-title offer from one of the very companies most apt to piss off open-source purists—of which he is one. The money was eh, but the position was tasty.

But that company? On his resume? On his business card? Draining the intellectual property from his very marrow? Auuuggghhh! It took less than two pints for my friend to clarify his thinking—a sign either that he didn't need much introspection or that the beer was exceptional.

Here we have the other side of the coin—my friend and I are older, we're established in our respective careers, and we have what's known as fuck-you money. Fuck-you money is the money you have saved up for when your job is too wretched, your boss too insane, or your sanity too fragile to take another minute in the barrel. Somewhere in your head you keep the balance on your fuck-you-money account tabulated and displayed on one of those telethon-style tally boards. When the going gets rough, you retreat to your happy place, contemplate the board, and make a life decision.

And this, too, is as it should be (like the man said: Grub first, then ethics). Turning up one's nose at a needed scholarship doesn't hurt the donor; someone else will take the money and you're that much further from the all-important degree (the essential "grub" of the job market). Rejecting a job, though—at that point, when you've got something real to offer a company and you withhold it—that's worth something.

For an industry that's not making bombs or baby formula, a respectable amount of soul-searching goes on amongst geeks. In these money-mad days, this makes the geek community the most interesting, forthright, nuanced group of folks a reporter can cover—better than politicians, better than showbiz, better than anyone else I can think of. Quite possibly that makes me look at a number like $1,000,000,000 and think simply, "Wow. Cool." So be it.

And so I gaze upon my news-reporting brethren as they gaze with waxy cynical eyes at the Gates Foundation and I think: You assholes. Microsoft is a menace, a big meanie, a voracious industry-eater, sure. But the world can be changed by just one or two bright, motivated, committed people, let alone 1000-plus. If they get their start on the path to greatness with a bit of Microsoft money, that still makes them great, and makes this donation praiseworthy in the utmost. Bill and Melinda, thank you.

 
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