Good Billionaire

And my unlikely nominee for best philanthropist?

It pains me to say it, but it’s Bill Gates. More specifically Bill and his wife Melinda Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man whose net worth is currently about thirty billion dollars. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man my wife routinely curses at. She swears someday she is going to Redmond to firebomb his house. Because many of us (I know we are so un-American) just don’t like Bill Gates. We consider Windows “technology” to be buggy and inferior crap designed to drive us nuts. I hold Bill Gates personally responsible for wasting hundreds of my hours, for which I was never compensated. When Windows 3.1 ruled the world my machine crashed every 30 minutes, if I was lucky. What a piece of crap, I thought. Why would anyone, particularly my employer, spend so much money to own this piece of shit? How could any company allow such crap to go on the market?

And it didn’t get much better. Windows 95 was marginally better but it was often BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) City. Windows 98 was the same piece of crap, and Windows Me was the most unreliable Windows product since Windows 3.1. Reliability started improving with Windows 2000 but of course something had to give. And that was security. It became clear that Windows was a hacker’s dream. My PC regularly got infested with viruses, spyware, adware and Trojan horses. To use it with any sense of security my wife and I had to become PC security experts. Even after putting in firewalls, virus checkers and plugging every hole we could think of we still have security issues. God only knows what else may be on our PCs that we don’t know about. And all this is the fault of Bill Gates, who rushed buggy products to market without adequate testing and forced us to cough up premium prices for inferior software.

Yeah, I know I should have got a Mac. Except I couldn’t work from home with a Mac. The reality was the business world was Windows centric and there was not much I could do about it. I could just feel frustrated and resent feeling like my pocket had been picked clean.

So it really pains me to admit that Bill and Melinda Gates are excellent philanthropists. I figured when it came to philanthropy they would bring their formidable software skills to it and completely wreck it. But that’s not what happened. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps not only the best funded charity in the world, but doing the most vital work out there.

For example take malaria. It kills a child in the world every three seconds. And it is a completely preventable disease. A third of the world is at risk of developing malaria. Malaria vaccines are relatively cheap by our standards, but it is hard to get to all the third world countries in order to inoculate people. But even where spraying and inoculations are difficult, simple malaria netting can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease. The Gates Foundation is taking a pragmatic approach that might actually solve the problem.

It is hard for many of us to understand just how desperately poor billions of people are. In some places of the world, like Thailand, families have to sell their own daughters into prostitution to survive. Even malaria netting costs more than they can afford. Handing out malaria netting in these areas greatly reduces the risk of contracting malaria. Clearly inoculations and systematic spraying are also important. The Gates Foundation is working in all three areas. Money and persistence can do a lot of good. And arguably they are doing a much more effective job than many governmental organizations are doing, although they often work directly with leading organizations addressing these problems. Of course many governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization are not always flush with sufficient funds. But Bill Gates can use his personal fortune to create the sustained focus needed to seriously address chronic problems like malaria.

In the global health arena, the Gates Foundation is arguably at the forefront. The Gates Foundation is funding HIV/AIDS research in both vaccines and in drugs that minimize symptoms and extend patients’ lives. It is also working on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. In addition to HIV/AIDS the Gates Foundation is coordinating work on other common and preventable diseases like tuberculosis. It is working to make sure that people in poor countries have access to tuberculosis, measles, polio and other vaccines that the rest of us take for granted.

But one area that makes me almost want to shake Bill Gates’s hand is the foundation’s work in family planning. While our Administration wrings its hands over using tax dollars on birth control in third world countries, the Gates Foundation is pushing family planning in the poorest areas of the world. I have been giving money to Planned Parenthood World Population Control for more than a decade. I can think of no better use of my money than to help stabilize the world’s population. But the amount I can contribute is tiny. The Gates Foundation can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem. And they apparently don’t give two figs if birth control upsets some Catholics and Mormons. Stabilizing the population is good for humanity and good for the planet.

In short Bill and Melinda have proven themselves to be excellent humanists. Realizing they can’t take their billions with them into the afterlife, they have decided to use significant chunks of their fortunes to target some of the thorniest and most pressing problems in the world. It would be nice if we could adequately fund efforts in these areas on the national and international level, but we seem to have other priorities like tax cuts. Free of the prejudice and ignorance that comprises much of our leadership, the Gates Foundation can potentially solve some of these persistent and thorny problems.

So while I still resent Bill Gates for all the time and money he cost me, I feel a little better toward him because he is using a significant portion of his fortune to make the world a better place. I still intend to buy a Mac one of these days though.

Crying in my bier for Microsoft … NOT!

Microsoft is beginning to cry uncle.

Admittedly this is a strange thing to hear from the “innovators” at Microsoft. But it appears they are starting to realize that their software is, well, massively overpriced. It’s not very good either, but that’s not something they are going to admit, despite almost daily press articles about the latest security holes found in their products. Their web server, Internet Information Server, is so riddled with security holes that you have to be more than a bit nuts to install it today.

Anyhow according to this article in its SEC filing Microsoft is warning its earnings may be lower in the future because of the growth of the open source movement. For those of you who don’t know, open source is software that is free of license and cost, and is maintained and written by volunteers. Microsoft is having a real hissy fit about open source software. They are calling it unreliable, which is hardly ever the case. They are calling it anti-American because no one is making a profit from it. (Not quite true. Open source software is often a platform upon which companies add value by creating customized packages that work with it. Oracle is laughing all the way to the bank.) They are even pressing for laws and regulations that would forbid governments from using open source.

This would be laughable if they weren’t so serious and were not stuffing so much money into the pockets of congressmen. Nonetheless many federal agencies have figured out that open source software is not only free to use, and of much higher quality than what can be maintained commercially, but can actually be inspected and modified. Yes, users can actually fix their own problems! What a concept!

The Microsoft approach is, of course, to make you pay for the privilege of talking to one of their technical support folks and maybe, if you are lucky, getting a patch or a work around to allow you to get things done. Release their code so you can inspect it and fix it yourself? Not a chance.

But Microsoft is beginning to understand it may not have a choice. European countries are looking at using open source software exclusively. The article I referenced above says that Microsoft has come up with a “Government Security Program”. This will allow governments like the United Kingdom to actually look at Microsoft’s source code and maybe fix things themselves.

Clearly it takes a lot of clout to get Microsoft to do something like this, and governments are one of the few institutions large enough to tell Microsoft to piss off.

As a federal employee working on information technology issues I can tell you that using open source software is a no brainer. Not that all open source software is great, but much of it is excellent and of extremely high quality. Even if it is unlikely that I personally will go in and inspect the software if an error is found, it’s easy enough to hire people or a service that can do this if needed. But the main reason open source is a no-brainer is because you are no longer locked in to a vendor. No or low cost, higher quality software, and the ability to actually make permanent fixes sounds like a winning combination to me. Open source is creeping into my agency. We have some Linux machines. Some of our software is written in PHP, an open source scripting language. We also have a comments database written in Perl. Our Linux web servers, for some reason, don’t seem vulnerable to so many security flaws.

I’ve been playing with open source software for a few years now. It’s amazing what is readily available for free. On one domain I put up a free content management system. When it no longer suited my needs I replaced it with an even better free content management system. On a forum I run, I am using phpBB bulletin board software. It works great. And I’ve been able to do in and tweak it to do things I want it to do. This blog software is not quite open source, but it is free to use for personal use. And it’s easily inspected since it is written in Perl. And if Moveable Type no longer suits me there are plenty of quality open source alternatives I can choose instead.

I doubt Microsoft will go into bankruptcy court. But if they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile I sense that their desktop monopoly is likely to crack in the next couple years. The software is there to do away with Windows and its whole Microsoft Office suite. It’s free and programs such as Open Office work seamlessly with Microsoft Office. I would not be surprised at all if Microsoft realized Windows can’t be viable operating system much longer. Perhaps like Apple they will build a new Windows around a solid Unix interface. I know I would be happier. At least my computer is more likely not to crash and work predictably.

Karma seems to work on many levels, including the corporate level. Microsoft: beware. What comes around goes around.