Free Lunches In An Open World

An economic truism is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. While lunch itself may not be free, you can get a lot of free software and education. In the open source movement, a lot of skilled programmers have put their time into software that they give away. You can get graphic editors, music production software, office suites, and even operating systems. The programs come with thorough user guides and YouTube demonstrations, so you can figure out how to use them. Its not always as a good as what you would pay for, but you didn’t pay for it.

Open education is even more exciting. On an informal level, people with know-how, a camera, and time have posted instructional videos on how to do almost anything. You can learn how to change a flat tire, build a solar panel, play guitar, and anything else you might be interested in taking up. Educational institutions have gotten in on the act with top universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Cal Berkeley posting videos of entire courses online. Sorry you never got that Philosophy degree? Don’t be; you’re probably better off. I’m speaking from experience. And you can just attend that Existentialism in Film and Literature class you were dying to take via iTunes.

I can’t really get my mind around the fact that open source software and open education exist. It really challenges my views on human nature. Who builds something and just gives it away? Who freely shares the skills that that provide their livelihood? Why are universities voluntarily giving up their status as gatekeepers to knowledge? Maybe there is a compelling account of how all of these activities are ultimately self-interested, but it seems like what they’re giving is of far greater value than what they’re getting.

Regardless of motive, the open movement lowers barriers to education and productivity. By buying a computer and spending tens of dollars a month on an internet connection, all the tools you need to learn and do interesting and valuable things are right at your finger tips. This could have a massive effect on human productivity if eventually it doesn’t require any money to get a world class education and a number of tools to make good on that education. We are almost there already.

However, in the nearer future, its more likely to cause some economic disruption when free services displace ones that generate income. People rely on that income, and its hard to compete with free (this is Google’s business model, by the way). And of course, the “digital divide” of those who can access to the internet and those who cannot limits the effect of these open movements, but with 2 billion people online, the leap in innovation could be drastic.

By this point, you’re probably ready to start learning and doing.  Here are the links to the free stuff that I know about. If you’re struggling to use any of the programs, search for user guides, forums, and instructional videos on YouTube. All you have to lose is time:

Open Culture – its a library of free media on the internet. It has links to classes at a number of universities, movies, e-books, etc.

Internet Archive – same as above.

Ubuntu – an operating system complete with all the programs you need and then some. You can install it to run alongside your operating system or replace an operating system altogether.

Chromium OS – the open source version of Google’s Chrome operating system. I haven’t used it yet, but it supposed to be very fast, light on features, and heavy on web applications.

Cyanogen Mod – an Android Gingerbread operating system for mobile phones and tablets. I found instructions on a forum to install it on my girlfriend’s Nook Color, and it is a huge upgrade.

Open Office – a complete productivity suite. It has 90% of Microsoft Office’s functionality and 0% of its price. Therefore, I don’t own Office.

Libre Office – word on the street is its better than Open Office.

GIMP – the free version of Photoshop. I used it to make the banner on the site.

Dafont – fonts to use with GIMP or any other graphic editor. There are a lot of free sites like this; just search for free fonts.

I recently heard a presentation on music education where I learned about a bunch of resources. I’ve only used a few of them. Try them out, and let me know which ones you like:

LMMS – I haven’t used Garage Band, but this is supposed to be pretty similar. It has a tough interface, but after spending a little while with the user guide, I’ve had a lot of fun tinkering with it. You really need a keyboard and MIDI input to make full use of it.

Muse Score – for composition and notation. It looks like Finale.

Lilypond – composition and notation.

Impro-visor – notation with an emphasis on understanding jazz solos.

Hydrogen – a drum machine.

Rosegarden – it looks like it has everything above rolled into one.

Ardour – looks like LMMS.

Audacity – audio recording and editing.

Places to go to learn about music theory, playing, and making music: Young Composers,, Reddit, and YouTube.

You can find more free applications that aren’t necessarily open source for Windows and Mac. One service I unequivocally recommend is Evernote for jotting down idea, saving links, and making it all searchable. Here are some free video editors.

It would be greatly appreciated if you added any other open services to the comments below. Enjoy your free lunch.

  • Steven

    Cool links! Handbrake is an open source video encoder.

    • Ryan Michael Murphy (@NouveauSouth)

      Thanks, Big Swig!

  • John Headley

    I’m almost not sure how disruptive this stuff really could be. Obviously in order to make this software, people have to patronize the companies that sell software development software, attend the classes or buy and read the books to know how to use that software and pay people for the space online used to distribute whatever they produce. Saying it’s economically disruptive to give this software away is like saying the hamburgers you eat for free at a church barbecue are disruptive to Burger King’s bottom line. Besides, I think in many cases websites offering free stuff are also being used for ad space for other companies, which has its place as well. It sort of seems to me that if a particular endeavor is of such inherent worth in itself for people to do and then not expect to profit from it, the bar should be set a little higher for the people expecting to profit.

  • Ryan Michael Murphy (@NouveauSouth)

    The church barbecue can’t distribute free hamburgers to everyone in the world over the internet. I’m sure Microsoft is sweating the estimated 40 million Open Office users. With MS Office at over $100 a pop, it probably puts the impact of Open Office on Microsoft’s revenue in the billions. There is also another free office suite, Libre Office, which I forgot to mention in the original article.

    Here’s a free guide to learning the programming language Ruby that uses cartoon foxes.

    Here’s Ruby on Rails, a free software development program using Ruby.

    Here’s a list of applications developed with Ruby on Rails. The list includes Twitter and Groupon.

    There are a ton of places to get free hosting to distribute applications (like the site you’re on right now).

    While established institutions that charge have the advantage of marketing muscle and inertia, its conceivable that people could make applications with large-scale economic implications without ever having paid for anything. With the return on higher education diminishing, there is going to be an inevitable shift toward alternative and low-cost ways of making people productive; its just a question of degree. Sometimes I wish I was educated by the internet and not by universities.

    The open movement is one of the only things that makes me optimistic about the future. Its creates the possibility for broader human excellence with a very low bar as to means, and its foundation is something other than self-interest. (Ayn Rand rolls over in her grave, twice.)

  • James

    A few thoughts:

    If you get a product for free, you are the product. I’m fond of that saying because I find it true in many instances. While Open office or Libre Office don’t really fit, many of the online music services, search engines, and, clearly, social networking websites make money through ads and market research data. So, there is a tangible benefit to some companies for providing some services for free.

    Institutions of higher learning are not really under any threat in the near-mid term. What they offer that’s not freely available but is probably more important for Job seekers are credentials – degrees. You can’t earn an engineering degree through MIT’s website and the degree is why people pay MIT money. Nobody’s hiring a guy who watched all the engineering courses on You Tube in his spare time. There’s little downside to giving away classes for free online because the knowledge isn’t the product. Similarly, they may improve the stature of the school if people see the quality of the courses matches the expected quality of the degree. Since your experience is with Law, I’ll pose a question: If you had been able to watch a representative sample of your BU Law classes online prior to applying, would you still have applied?

    I don’t disagree with you about disruptive innovation and it’s economic impact. Indeed the kind of creative destruction seen in the music industry is a good model. Where would Apple be without iTunes? That one program has been at the forefront of their transformation from backwater PC manufacturer to elite technology empire. iTunes now drives the music market and the growing app market. But I’d say that every company destroyed will be replaced. The value of the new service will outweigh the old. iTunes clearly offers a higher level of services and satisfaction than the markets it is replacing.
    see also. Blockbuster

    Hmm…let’s see what free stuff I make use of that I can share.

    Hulu – no more cable bills!

    I like Google Docs for all the collaboration –

    7-Zip is great for all those weird .zip type archives

    Actually wait, Lifehacker already aggregated a bunch of free stuff across several operating systems and mobile devices (not all are free, but most are):







    • Ryan Michael Murphy (@NouveauSouth)

      Thanx for the linkz.

      True, you are the product for almost all “free” services. You just have to distinguish between free and “open”, where there really is little to nothing tangible the creators are getting in return.

      I agree that creditials are the other product in higher education. I have a post coming up on the higher ed. And yes, I would have definitely attended BU based on seeing a representative sample of classes. I think the quality of education I received was generally exceptional. Now for return on investment… that’s a different story.

      Maybe I should do a short post on the big tech companies and their business models. I don’t think there is a lot of understanding there. Apple – user benefit: friendly design, makes money: selling content, Facebook – user benefit: content on people, makes money: ads, Google – user benefit: access to content and awesome free products, makes money: ads. What’s remarkable is that all of these companies are content distributors, not producers. I’m not sure what the implication is. Don’t make content, distribute it? There’s got to be something more there.

  • James

    Yeah, I think the “make content” vs “distribute content” focus is the right one. Google does make a lot of its own content in the form of free stuff that also gathers info for its ads; although I’m not sure if their in-house content outweighs all the other stuff they aggregate. Facebook and Twitter don’t make any content but gather tons off their users. I’m also thinking of sites like HuffPo and the various Gawker media sites. They get most of their content from freelancers who are not well paid.

    Here’s the model I see:

    1. Clearly, there’s a lot of content that has mass market appeal (software, news and options, entertainment and media).

    2. The barriers to entry are incredible low but the barriers to adoption (if that’s the right word) are very high. In other words, it’s tough to get noticed when your content is similar to a lot of other content.


    3. Aggregation and content delivery become an essential service, perhaps more important than the content itself.

    We still need some way of examining what’s available and picking out content that’s most important for our needs. The various distributors make that happen far more efficiently than, say, word of mouth. Google’s page ranks aren’t just an ad tool, they really do make life better. I remember doing high school and middle research prior to Google’s dominance and it was a pain in the ass – nothing was really that useful. A good content system is essential when the barriers to entry are low.

    I see a potential downside, though. I’ll call it the Pandora feedback loop because that’s where I first noticed it. Pandora lets you “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” songs and will select future tracks based on your established preferences. Do this enough and you’ll end up with a 10 song loop. When services monitor our behavior they rightly try to give us more of what we want. The price is variety and new experiences. Similarly, Amazon pretty much only recommends Jane Austen novels and anime-Shakespeare to me because I purchased several Jane Austen texts for English classes and several anime-style illustrated Shakespeare plays for teaching. That’s it. Amazon sees that as the entirety of my reading lifestyle.

    As content delivery becomes more tied to our online (and offline) activity I worry that we’ll face a kind of epistemic closure – the world only gives us exactly what we ask for and nothing else. I think choice is important.

    Here’s Dodge’s take on this exact problem:

    I really did start to feel sad for that guy.

  • jrheadley2482

    Murphy, minor retort: There isn’t just one church barbecue against the entire Burger King corporation. They’re being held in a bazillion different churches and its more than just churches at the end of the day too. It’s hard to say (without further research) what BK’s share of the total burger market is when you include the freebies. Fortunately for BK, the difference between burgers and free software is that the civic organizations and families that distribute the burgers are all mostly in decline. The people that have the time to make and put out the free software apparently aren’t. If people went back to mom’s homecooking en masse, the fast food chains probably would find themselves in a bit of a crisis. But again, how is that a disruption for anyone but the would-be profiteer? If people are willing to pay for the inputs to create a product that they then distribute for free and a need is met, why should we be concerned that no one got the chance to skim anything off the top from the ordeal? Is it really that much of a tragedy that the average user of word processing programs has another $100 to blow on something else at Best Buy?

    • Ryan Michael Murphy (@NouveauSouth)

      I don’t think its a tragedy at all. I think this disruption is a very good thing, but it does have negative consequences for some.

  • Sean Murphy (@ShanePMurphy3)

    Listening to NPR this morning I heard about this:

    12 minute videos about pretty much any scholastic course you can think of as well as information on the bailout, credit crisis, venture capital and investing. I admittedly have not watched a lot of videos, but the amount of content alone on a variety of subjects certainly makes it worth looking into.

    • Ryan Michael Murphy (@NouveauSouth)

      I just looked at it. It seems pretty awesome.

  • Jane O’Donnell

    Oh yeah, and did you hear that Stanford is now going a step further and offering some free online classes that you actually get credit for? I think I’m going to take this one on databases.