What I Learned About Open Source from Saturday Morning Cartoons

Original article was published on Deep Learning on Medium

What I Learned About Open Source from Saturday Morning Cartoons

Reader, I have a confession. I’m really into bad 1980’s cartoons. You know, the ones that are little more than animated toy commercials? I’ve learnt so many life lessons from those hours in front of a flickering analog TV.

Come to think of it, that does explain a lot…

Anyway, the biggest takeaway though from all those cartoons is that open source is the way to go.

For me, open source got me traveling the world, landed a partnership with NASA, and got me a job on the cutting edge of AI. Not to mention meeting a whole bunch of crazy and amazing people. So, you know, no big deal.

But wait (I hear you cry), I don’t remember The Animated Adventures of Richard Stallman, and I must have missed the Muppet Babies very special episode about the subtleties of the GPL v3.0.

I’ll admit: It’s only when I look back that it all meshes together. Think I’m full of it? Just listen to your favorite Saturday morning cartoons themselves:

Freedom is the Right of All Sentient Beings

Humans (and Autobots) thrive on freedom. Having the freedom to try new foods, see new places, or find new ways to use my coffee maker has made me who I am. I also love the freedom to experiment on my computer in new and interesting ways.

Of course, I would never do this. Again.

Any technology that stops you screwing up also stops you experimenting to the fullest. I want the freedom to rm -rf /, even if I never use it.

After using open-source systems for so long, going back to Windows or macOS is jarring. I just don’t have the liberty to customize it the way I want. In the words of a great philosopher:

“Freedom (to futz around with your desktop settings) is the right of all sentient beings”

I’m sure Optimus Prime said something like that anyway.

I want the freedom to completely reconfigure my workspace, with whatever look and feel works best for me. That might mean working in a bare-bones green on black terminal, spinning around a cubic desktop with compiz, or using something that looks like it crawled out of the age of 80s cartoons itself. And I can mix and match bits of them as I see fit.

Get motion sickness right on your desktop with Compiz!

Like every classic cartoon baddie, Windows wants to limit my freedom to do what I want. Freedom to change the position of my taskbar or swap out my wallpaper is barely freedom at all. For true customization I’d have to rip out the desktop shell and replace it with a third party alternative. Pretty, but not great for stability.

Litestep Windows shell. I used this on top of Windows 95 back in the day

The Mac is similar. I can choose between a light and dark theme, and I’m limited to the standard WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) interface. No tiling with i3m or PaperWM for me.

The beautiful PaperWM

My current setup is a Manjaro box with a stripped-down GNOME desktop and PaperWM that I mostly use for running a terminal emulator and Firefox. It’s mostly keyboard-driven, uses arcane key bindings (thank you Vim!), and is almost perfectly tailored for my needs. Going back to one of the standard operating systems feels like typing with boxing gloves on.

My (very minimalist) desktop

Don’t Need No Credit Card to Ride This Train

This one’s a bit of a niche one, but they made a cartoon of Back to the Future. Because of course they did.

Like Rick and Morty, but wholesomer

In the words of the immortal Huey Lewis:

Don’t need money, don’t take fame
Don’t need no credit card to ride this train
It’s strong and it’s sudden and it’s cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life
That’s the power of open source

Close enough. Either way, back when I was a student surviving on ramen and meat pies (yup, I”m a Kiwi), I sure didn’t have any spare dosh to throw at the latest Windows upgrade or buying a Mac. I was stuck with what I had, or what I could download.

Then I saw a computer magazine with CD-ROMs stuck to the front, usually offering the latest demos, shareware, and full versions of out-of-date software. But in this case, it had something called Knoppix Linux. For about 8 bucks, I could not only get a new OS, but one that came with an office suite, programming IDE, graphics editor, and more. And I could share it with my friends for free!

The first Linux desktop I used. I dig those titlebars and I still miss them

For a broke-ass student like myself, this was the only way I could’ve got my grubby little mitts on all of these shiny goodies. Pirating really wasn’t a thing on a dial-up modem, and this was before torrenting. Let’s not even start on Limewire and warez BBSes…

I don’t want to brag, but my modem was 14.4kbps. That point four makes all the difference

I Am what I Am

Nope, not Descartes, but one of the other great philosophers: Popeye.

Okay, so Popeye wasn’t technically an 80’s cartoon, but that’s when I watched it. And it took me until recently to realize that spinach giving you superpowers? Total fiction. Reader, I feel as betrayed as you do.

Anyway, forgetting spinach for a second, like Popeye, open source is what it is. It does (more or less) what it claims to do. Don’t believe what it says on the tin? Take a look at the source code on GitHub or work with a company like FossID to search vulnerabilities for you.

Closed source can be very different. Just recently we’ve seen Tiktok scraping clipboard data without consent and Microsoft sending telemetry in breach of privacy rules. If such prominent products were open-source, these issues would be sniffed out quickly, or less likely to arise in the first place since they’d be doing everything in the open and more likely to be caught by the good guys.

I Have The Power

I have both of these outfits in my wardrobe. They ain’t for cosplay

Open source software can continuously improve, and it’s driven by the needs of the users themselves. Sure, you could say that Windows 10 is an improvement on Vista, but there are big downsides like ads clogging up your Start menu and that whole telemetry thing.

Where do you want to go today? Who wouldn’t want to go to FarmVille 2?

Don’t like the direction your desktop environment is taking? If enough users feel the same way, get together, fork it, and take it in a new direction. The MATE Desktop crew did just this with the Gnome codebase — they didn’t like the vision for Gnome 3.0, so they took the 2.0 code and built their own version out of that. Imagine trying to do the same thing with Windows or macOS (yeah, Gnome and MATE are desktop environments rather than full-blown operating systems, but that’s the beauty of it. Because it’s an open ecosystem, things are more modular. One system can have multiple desktop environments built in many different ways.)

MATE Desktop

Let Our Powers Combine

In the words of Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

See? You came for the cartoons and stayed for inspirational quotes from a noted cultural anthropologist. You’re welcome!

Margaret meant this in a more activist context, but the same holds true for open-source. Many of the world’s biggest software projects are open-source, and contributed to by millions of developers. Billions of people around the world use them every day, often without ever knowing:

  • Apache and Nginx: The server software that run most of the web
  • GNU/Linux and BSD: The operating systems that run Apache and Nginx
  • Android: Yeah, you probably already know this one
  • Your browser: Chances are you’re reading this in Chrome or Firefox — two huge browsers that are both open source

And according to Intel, even your train or nuclear submarine may be running open source software — all because a bunch of coders who shared a dream came together:

It’s 2020. Who among us doesn’t have their own personal nuclear sub?

Live Long and Prosper

Again, not exactly an 80s cartoon, but I saw Star Trek: The Animated Series in the 80s and its message of peace and understanding inspires me to this day (well, if I’m being honest, Star Trek’s message as a whole, not just TAS)

The thing about a lot of closed-source software is that it doesn’t live long, and this can lead to a downfall in your prosperity. Hell, I use a text editor that was invented in 1976 and is still under active development one way or another.

Just think about the most popular word processing software in the world? What happens if the owner goes out of business?

I’m not talking about Microsoft Word or Google Docs. I’m talking about WordStar, the dominant word processor of the 1980s.

Thousands of users, including George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) were left in the cold when it was abandoned. Winter truly had come. They’d invested time and effort into learning this system, and now what?

Over time, operating systems retire old functions, and old software “rots” (just look at anything not updated for y2k, or for the latest macOS).

Now the only way to run the once almighty WordStar is to install GNU/Linux and DOS emulator on top of that. Quite the fall from grace. If you don’t, all of those .ws files you spent hours, days, and years on, are if not completely inaccessible, a total PITA to work with. It’s ironic that now the only way to work with closed software like WordStar is via an open source system.

Now, how would that look in the modern day? Microsoft is way bigger than just Word, so let’s look at a smaller company that makes productivity tools: What would happen if Adobe went under?

  • You’d be stuck with your existing versions of Adobe software while the rest of the world marches on. After a while, operating systems will deprecate enough legacy code that old apps won’t run any more. I haven’t tried running Photoshop 1.0 on Windows 10, but I can’t imagine it would be pretty.
  • Even sooner than that, Adobe’s license activation servers would go down. Since Adobe Creative Suite is Software as a Service (SaaS), it relies on these servers to verify you’re a paying customer. No server means no verification means you’ll either have features restricted or you’ll be locked out completely.
  • What happens then to all your PSD and AI files? You might be able to do something with them in Inkscape or GIMP (hey, I didn’t choose the name), but there’s not 100% compatibility.
  • If you want to keep moving forwards, you’ll need to learn a new piece of software and wave goodbye to quite lot of work. Goodbye muscle memory and interface familiarity!
Server? I barely knew ‘er!

What happens if an open-source project goes under? If enough people care about it they can fork the code and keep it going themselves, just like MATE did. If not, you can always spin up a virtual machine running the old software and use it from there.

Knowing is Half the Battle

This is the quote that always springs to mind when I think of what open source has done for me personally. I got started with coding back in the bad old days of MS-DOS 5.0 and QBasic. I have fond memories of editing the physics in the Gorillas game to make the bananas fly where I wanted, and trying to build a Zork-like text adventure without initially realizing the sheer amount of object interactions I’d have to deal with.

My parents convinced me this was Donkey Kong

Gorillas came with Qbasic, and the code was available to view and edit. But really it (and BASIC itself) are just toys. I properly got into programming with Python, and the open community has been so educational and helpful in building what I want, whether it’s an AI that writes crappy Star Trek, a terminal-based WeChat client, a tool to translate and summarize long PowerPoints from a professor, or a website to help hospitals get protective equipment more easily.

Because I was building on open code bases (or in some cases, just open APIs and SDKs), I could see the magic for myself. The more popular programming languages and frameworks have extensive documentation and YouTube tutorials created by the community that helped me get running quickly, and by sharing the code myself, others helped me test it, fix bugs, and make it even better.

Save the Universe from the Monster Minds

Finally, one more niche cartoon, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors: Thundering across the stars to save the universe from the Monster Minds.

This had the most rocking 80’s theme tune

Which is really just a cute way of saying bad AI.

We’ve already seen what’s happening when not-so-good companies like TikTok and Microsoft screw users over with their closed-source software. But that pales into comparison with closed-source black-box artificial intelligences. Because of biased data used to train their models, Detroit’s police department has a 96% failure rate on facial recognition, yet this technology is still used worldwide to incarcerate innocents. Kinda makes cartoon villains look tame in comparison.

Meh. I’ve seen worse.

I’m working at an open-source AI company, Jina, that is committed to both open source and open governance. We want to build ethical AI to search the world’s information better. And we want the world to join in.

If you’re a coder who wants to get make a difference, join us today.