Giving back to Open Source for 2018

Even before I fully switched to a Linux machine, some 10 years ago, I was still a passionate user of open source software. Although usually buggy and less feature rich back then, it somehow appealed to me to be able to use the work of others for free (and legally!). Fast-forward 10 years to the future and now I am relying on open source software for the vast majority of my work and entertainment. It is hard to really quantify, but I would estimate that I am using open source software for about 95% of my software needs.

Even if open source comes for free, it requires huge amounts of work and dedication from individuals and teams, that is why once a year I choose the projects that I used the most the previous 365 days, and I donate to their precious developers. Here is my list for 2018, with a short explanation for each project/software.

Wikipedia

Do I need to say anything about Wikipedia? I guess not. Besides maybe the fact that I am a daily user of it, using it as a source of knowledge and inspiration for my teaching, projects, or general curiosity. I think Wikipedia is the only project that I have donated to every year. Could it have to do with those super inspiring messages of Jimmy Wales? Who knows…

Linux

I think this goes without saying, that we should all support Linux one way or another. Whether you are using Linux or not, your life literally depends on servers running this glorious OS. Your smartphone probably also runs a version of it, and we are all surrounded by services and products that use Linux in the background. But besides all the background use of linux, I do use it directly daily as it is my main OS for the past 10 years.

LaTeX

For those that don’t know about it, LaTeX is a document preparation system. And by document, they mean any kind of document. It can be books, articles, presentations, exams etc. etc. To generate a document, you select a predefined template (you can define yours too!) and write a kind of source file containing text and formatting rules. The source file then gets compiled and you can generate documents in different output formats (e.g. pdf).

I used LaTeX in the past, though last year I really dived into it and used it almost on a daily basis to prepare my lectures and exams. You can see the results in the robotics course lectures.

Git

Without much though, Git has been a very important enabler in my personal and professional life. I started using Git about 8 years ago, and I immediatelly got hooked to it! This is probably due to the fact that I hadn’t used any other Version Control software before, but it seems that I am not the only one around that adores this piece of software.

The past year I didn’t do anything special with git, besides using it practically in every single project that I worked on. So, kudos to Git!

Lichess

Chess is probably one of my less known passion, though still quite pronounced. I started playing chess in the analog era, with wooden pieces and real clocks, but it didn’t take long to realise the benefits of playing online. Initially starting to play online on FICS, I moved to Lichess when I wanted to play correspondance games with a friend of mine. Lichess has been my main source of procrastination ever since!

Why I love Lichess so much to donate money to it? Because it is an absolutely fantastic game and learning experience! They offer a lot of different ways to analyse your games, learn from your mistakes, and get insights on your tactics and strategies. And all this for free, because Lichess is an open source software!

Habitica

On the other end of the spectrum, I discovered a while ago a very useful app to fight procrastination, build habits, and become the person you dream of. And all this, while you are fighting monsters, gaining XP, and buying equipment. Originally called HabitRPG, Habitica is a habit building RPG, where the monsters you are fighting are your tasks and the habits you want to build.

It is a bit debatable how much it really helped me build some good habits and destroy bad ones, but the scale is leaning towards the positive side. And after using it for almost 4 years, I decided that the least I can do is to support the project financially.

ROS

ROS stands for Robot Operating System, and it’s a project that is on the news on each and every robotics community. It is basically a framework that allows the community to integrate together different sensors, actuators, robots, and algorithms, in a very structured and easy way. And all this, while allowing them to share their work with the rest of the world very easily. The development of ROS has sparked a ton of robotics projects in any domain you can think of.

I started using ROS this year for my research project and I am amazed with how much I managed to accomplish in such a short time. Since I have a grant for my research project, I found it only fair to direct some of the funds in the tools that make the project happen.

Neomutt

Neomutt is a fork of mutt, the mail client that sucks less than the others (but still sucks). Neomutt is a command line email client that has a very minimal user interface. This may sound like a pain in the neck, but Neomutt has a very fluent way of nagivating, searching, and organising your emails. And it has definitelly increased my productivity in several ways, such as:

  • It is extremelly lightweight, so you don’t slow down your other processing when using it
  • It removes a lot of the clutter you see in the emails. Clutter = distraction = bad bad bad
  • Keyboard based navigation. This is always a big plus on operation speed

Vdirsyncer, DAVx5

Vdirsyncer and DAVx5 are two tools for synchronising your calendars, contacts, todo lists between servers. The first is for Linux, while the second is a client for Android. They are both super stable, configurable and have saved me tons of time with synchronising my daily stuff among devices. For DAVx5 I didn’t really make a donation, I just bought their paid version from GooglePlay store. It’s exactly the same as the free one, just that you support the developers if you buy it.

I use these tools together with the excellent command line calendar khal and the contacts manager khard, for which I also wanted to send a donation, but unfortunately they don’t accept any…

K9

Is my weapon of choice when it comes to emailing on my smartphone. It is also a project that I’ve been using for ages, which I admire for its simplicity and stability. It is (as most open source software) highly customizable and reliable! However, they also don’t accept any donations, and instead they encourage you to donate to F-droid, which was a good alternative for me since I am also a user of F-droid. (F-droid is an alternative applications repository based on open source applications for android).

Inkscape

Ever heard of inkscape? Chances are that you have seen artwork created using it, as it is the standard vector graphics software in the OSS world. I’ve been a user ever since I remember myself (even on Windows!), and I keep on donating to its developers for quite some time now. For me, it’s super useful as I can create high quality figures for my presentations or articles, and it was also used extensively in all my projects that required something drawn :)

OpenStreetMap

Last year was a milestone in our lives, as we finally decided to buy a car. Even though I am not a fan of GPS systems, I do enjoy having a map with my location next to the steering wheel. It is useful sometimes to know what kind of road lies ahead and what to expect. Thus, I re-discovered and started re-using OSMAND, an android application for offline maps and navigation. Even though I bought the application, I still felt that the project that made OSMAND possible, was not remunarated.

That’s where OpneStreetMap comes into play, as they are the ones that provide map data for the OSMAND and the likes. While using their maps more and more, I realised that they are superuseful for more than just driving. I used their maps for hiking, for touristic walks in cities, and for taking picture notes when looking for land to buy. The maps are of really good quality, customisable, and updated very frequently. And if you notice something that is out of date or missing, you can just patch it up yourself.

Epilogue

So, these are just some of the projects that made my life easier, more productive, more fun, more educative (etc. etc.). The list could be going on forever, but these projects really stand out from the rest and they deserve special mention. Let’s see what will be special in 2019!

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Tassos Natsakis
Lecturer on Robotics and Biomechanics
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