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By Annalee Newitz

PASSOVER STARTED last week, which meant I had the atheist-Jew equivalent of Thanksgiving panic. You know what I mean—the feeling you get when you run around looking for a place to eat fake or real bird meat, even if you think nationalism is bullshit and the natives should have kicked our colonial asses back in the day.

Each year, I feel strangely compelled to join a group of people for Seder dinner, even though I've never believed in any kind of monotheistic überdeity. As I tried to conjure up a last-minute "eat some weird herbs and read from the Open Source Haggadah Project website" event, I was also recovering from a morally bewildering trip I recently took to the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wash.

I was part of a select group invited to meet with the rather friendly and bouncy nerds who populate the MSN Search team. My goal? To offer feedback about civil liberties issues raised by the MSN Search services. Other invitees' goals? Sort of unclear. Mostly, I think they wanted to blog things. There was a handful of Microsoft fan bloggers there, which was utterly bizarre—I'm not used to talking to geeks whose cute faces get frowny and confused when I mention FreeBSD and OpenOffice.

As for the MSN Search team? I think most of them really wanted to know what non-Beast employees thought about their product's potential for evil and stupidity. There are a lot of cool people who work at Microsoft, which is both mysterious and frustrating for anyone who aspires to be an ideologue.

So what the hell is up with MSN Search? Well, its local search is "so bad it's good" hilarious—sort of the web-service equivalent of The Chronicles of Riddick. But I can't tell you much else because I signed a nondisclosure agreement. Yes, it's true. The Beast of Redmond has sunk its legal tentacles into my brain and imprisoned some information in there which I cannot release.

But I'll risk the legal peril to give you one hint about what's happening deep in the dark inner recesses of MSN, where the plot to make start.com into a brand is only just beginning. Microsoft wants to crush Google's multicolored balls between the steel wings of MSN's floaty butterfly icon. Really, that's it.

My loss of ideological purity at the Beast came shortly after an ambiguous restoration of purity to the GNU/Linux community. BitKeeper has been purged. Here's the deal: For the past couple of years, Linux granddaddy Linus Torvalds and several key open-source developers have been using the proprietary software BitKeeper, a "versioning system" that allows multiple people to modify code at the same time, tracks their changes and publishes the results. Basically, it's a group editing tool.

Anyway, the author of BitKeeper, Larry McVoy, offered his tool to Torvalds and pals at no cost, and they were happy to take it. Although there are open-source and free software tools like CVS and Codeville they could have used, they preferred McVoy's proprietary tool.

But of course the Linux community freaked out. How could their beloved leader betray the cause and use a nonfree software tool to build their free operating system? Flame wars erupted. Accusations were hurled. McVoy's mailbox filled with daily doses of vitriol. Eventually, he got annoyed and asked people to shut up or he wouldn't let them use BitKeeper for free anymore. So of course the purists screamed louder. And finally, a couple weeks ago, McVoy stomped off in disgust and took his proprietary tool with him. Poor Torvalds, who adored BitKeeper, is now scrambling to move all his code over to another versioning system that he likes less. Rejoice! The software is pure again!

The whole thing makes me grumpy. Of course the free and open-source software movements should show that it's possible to build kick-ass computer systems without recourse to any proprietary products whose code is hidden. Building unfree code is like signing an NDA—you agree to keep vital information secret so that profit can be made and power can be consolidated.

And yet sometimes there's a proprietary thing that isn't evil. Sometimes you have to sign an NDA to get past the security gates and agitate for truth and justice.

Even if you don't believe in gods, sometimes you find yourself praying to one of them. In other words: fuck purity. Let's eat some gefilte fish.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is excited that Danyel Fisher has figured out how to find helpful people and trolls on newsgroups by using a bubble chart.

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From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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