Hobby Robotics with Free Software: Part 1 - Lego Mindstorms

My son has expressed an interest in getting into robotics as a hobby/learning exercise, which is pretty exciting to me, too. I want to get us set up to do some fun stuff, and I don't want things to be too hard so that we never really get started. One of the obvious choices for this is the Lego Mindstorms system, but the software that comes with it is designed only for Windows and Macintosh systems. Fortunately, there are free software alternatives. What will it cost in time and money to set up using our Debian GNU/Linux computers, and what will we get for that effort?

What's happened to the Bizarre Cathedral?

As you know I draw/produce the Bizarre Cathedral cartoon strips for Free Software Magazine. Lately you may have noticed it's slowed to a bit of a crawl and almost a halt. This is just to let you know that tBC has not ended and is forthcoming. Unfortunately I've had some personal stuff which has taken up more of my time than I wished.

Nominate your favourite free software project for Packt's 2011 Open Source Awards

The great guys at Packt Publishing just released the details for theirs 2011 Open Source awards.

We will forgive their embracing of the term "Open Source", especially since they've given _more than $100,000 for their awards.

The categories are:

The falcon virtual machine: an organic virtual machine shown with practical examples

At the beginning of 2011, the Falcon Committee decided to release version 1.0 of the Falcon Programming Language during the year. After a bit of discussion and planning, we begun working on a new version of the engine to support some constructs we wanted to add to the language: mostly rules and structured prototypes. Also, we spotted the possibility to add fuzzy logic and evolutionary programming (A-Life) constructs directly into the language. We now have a working prototype of what we’re calling the "Organic Virtual Machine".

Three Real-Time Animation Methods: Machinima, Digital Puppetry, and Motion Capture

In planning the production of the Lunatics series, the most obvious challenge is simply how to do that much animation on such a low budget. Conventional "key frame" animation (which is what Blender excels at and is what familiar 3D movie studios like Pixar use to create their blockbuster films) is beautiful, but it's also painstakingly slow work. Animators live for this stuff, but for me, it's a mountain that just might crush my project. Fortunately, it's not the only way. There are methods for making animation more like acting -- creating a performance in real-time and capturing it in a simulated world. These can be broken down into three basic methods (although they can be used together, creating many overlapping variations): "machinima", "digital puppetry", and "motion capture". Each is a "bleeding edge" area for free software development, but tools do exist.

Google and Privacy: An Open letter to Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Matt Cutts, Vic Gundotra

An Open letter to Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Matt Cutts, Vic Gundotra

Subject: So, does Google look into their users' private, non-shared files, and might close accounts if an AI decides that there is something illegal there?

Dear Sergey, Larry, Matt, and Vic,

Something sad happened to the world of cloud computing over the last week. I have followed with great interest the events of the now-celebrity @thomasmonopoly about Google closing his account.

Here is the short story: @thomasmonopoly had a bunch of (non-shared) images in his Google account. A program at Google flagged some of them as child pornography. His account was suspended. He complained loudly. He went viral. Google first ignored. Then backed their actions. They finally relented and apologised as there was no child pornography there, just an arts project -- a real one.

The Free Technology Academy needs your help!

The Free Technology Academy [1] is one of those incredible initiatives that spring out of the free software culture, and create something that goes way beyond free software.

Unfortunately, the FTA has recently lost their European funding. I talked to David Jacovkis, one of the people behind this innovative project, to know more about their situation and what needs to be done so that their project can keep on thriving.

The next big thing in personal computing

As far as personal computing, there has been a strong shift, in the last few years, towards multimedia contents. It started with digital cameras in phones, around 2003, which is when people really started taking a lot pictures with their phones, and started using their computers to organise them. They also started using MP3 players, and having to manage their music. If pictures and music weren't big and cumbersome enough, people also started managing their movie libraries (even though today a lot of people give up and opt for a cheap satellite TV subscription from sites like http://www.saveontvdirect.com/) instead, as movies still are too big to manage for a lot of people...

Creating a glass effect icon in Inkscape

Inkscape is a shining star in the free software graphics world. I've covered creating a simple ribbon in an earlier tutorial, so let's step things up a little. As part of my work I have often had to create icons for various situations. One of the more popular requests has been to create icons with a glass effect. This effect is surprisingly simple to achieve with something like Inkscape.

Emulating disk menus with HTML5 and Chromium for Lib-Ray

The final step (and probably most interesting) step in creating my Lib-Ray prototype (for releasing high-definition video without DRM or other anti-features) is to make a disk menu system to access the video data that I've already prepared. This column will actually document my second prototype design, as opposed to the first prototype which I presented at Texas Linux Fest in April 2011. This second is a big improvement and conforms much better to the draft HTML5 standard from the WHAT Working Group, and is much more functional in the existing Chromium browser, although improvements are still needed.

Book Review: The Book of Audacity by Carla Schroder

Audacity is one of my favorite free software applications, and it has really improved over the years. This book covers the latest features in the 1.3.x series, which is expected to lead directly to the version 2.x Audacity. The book covers more than just Audacity, though. In the process of covering several different uses, it also discusses everything from hardware equipment selection to copyright and business problems that may come up in a project. Overall, it's a good read and a good introduction to Audacity, audio recording, and audio processing.

Book Review: Sakai: Free as in Freedom written by Charles Severance

Sakai: Free as in Freedom, written by Charles Severance (the first Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation) is a personal view of the history of Sakai. The book is a thorough description of how the project and its software evolved. This is not a book about software configuration; it is a book that describes how a community emerged from the actions of individuals.

Assembling and Testing a Complex Ogg Theora Video with Command Line Tools and VideoLAN Client (VLC)

Unless you've been hiding in a cave for the last few years, you probably know about the free multimedia codecs with the fishy-sounding names from Xiph.org: Ogg Vorbis (for sound) and Ogg Theora (for video). You might be less familiar with other family and friends, including FLAC (lossless audio), Skeleton (metadata stream), and Kate (subtitles). However, together this collection of codecs can be used with the Ogg container format to provide all of the functionality of a DVD video file -- multiple soundtracks, full surround sound, high definition, and selectable subtitles. Having created the various streams for a prototype release of "Sintel" in my last few columns, I'm now going to integrate them into a single video file and test it with some players.

Tilt-Shift: Faking miniatures with GIMP

Recently I've seen a resurgence in chatter about Tilt-shift effects in photography. I think it has stemmed from the use of tilt shift in the introduction videos for the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. Here I outline a brief tutorial in achieving tilt-shift miniaturisation effects using GIMP

Put your webcams to good use with iSpy camera security software.

Installed home surveillance systems can cost thousands of dollars, they are expensive to maintain and costly to upgrade. Lying around your house right now you've probably got all the ingredients you need to create your own video surveillance system for next to nothing - all you need are a couple of old web cameras, a PC and some new free (as in freedom) Windows software called iSpy.

Creating Subtitles from SRT Sources for a Matroska Video with mkvmerge GUI

Another alternative to using kate subtitles in an Ogg video would be to use the existing SRT subtitles in a Matroska video container. I don't believe the SRT format is patent encumbered (its really simple with just timecodes and text, so I'd hope that no one was give a patent on something that obvious), and the Matroska (or MKV) container format is an amazing, all-purpose container. From wikipedia:

Creating 3D Printed Models with Blender and the Shapeways Printing Service

One of the most exciting technological trends in recent years has been the rise of "3D printing" technologies for rapid prototyping of arbitrary shapes. I've written about this before for Free Software Magazine, but this month I finally got to try the technology out for myself -- in order to create "study models" (a fancy name for "toys") for my video project, Lunatics. In this column, I'm going to walk through the complete process, from creating 3D models to receiving the final product in the mail.

Chromebooks - has the future arrived?

It seems like an age ago since Google first announced ChromeOS and certainly there's been a lot written about it, including a fair bit in this magazine. Now that the launch of Chromebook models from two manufacturers is imminent, it might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the issues around a "Cloud-based OS" generally, and this one in particular.


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