If there's anything 2011 will be remembered for, it's probably going to be the wave of mass protests that reverberated around the world (and is still traveling). I don't think we've seen the end of this. I think this is the leading edge of an on-going pattern that will continue for decades. What's happened is that a kind of behavior common online has jumped a groove and found a place in the "real world".
In an earlier phase of my life, I worked as a professional astronomer, and I've loved space and astronomy since before I could pronounce the words. So naturally, I've gotten a lot of personal pleasure from the free software astronomy tools that are included in my Debian GNU/Linux system. But ironically, I haven't written about them much. Recently, though, I was asked a question which I used KStars to answer, so this is a good chance to talk about how to use it.
You've probably heard of "Last FM", a music playlist site that allows users to track their favorite bands and listen to music streamed over their mobile devices. But you may not have heard of Libre FM, a recent free software project and free culture web application intended to serve this purpose exclusively for free-licensed musical works.
Python scripting in Blender seems like a natural interest for me, as I'm interested in both Blender and Python. I really enjoyed reading this book on the subject, and the examples were certainly interesting. However, there is one small problem that I didn't realize until after I had read it: Blender's Python API changed a lot in the major re-write that accompanied the transition from Blender 2.4x to 2.5x. This unfortunately is going to make this book dated a lot sooner than you might expect. So, while I do think it's a great book, I might have to recommend waiting for a version updated to Blender 2.5x.
Jamendo has been one of my favorite sites for finding free-licensed music (i.e. music licensed under Creative Commons Attribution or Attribution-ShareAlike licenses) for projects. So, it's very sad for me to find out that it has had a flagging reputation over the last year or so. I first noticed earlier this year that some artists were disappearing from the site.
Recently, as I was browsing the shelves of my local used book store, I realized that I was engaged in "piracy" of exactly the same kind as what the legacy entertainment industry has slammed as a scourge so terrible that it is worthy of giving up our online freedoms to protect. This is what SOPA is supposed to protect us from.
The Blender Foundation has started a new "Open Movie" project called "Mango", and this one is of particular interest to me for Lunatics, because of the technical goal: motion tracking. Motion tracking is principally about putting animated 3D objects into real footage so that it matches the background "plate" (i.e. the original footage).
It looks like 2012 is going to be a great year for free culture. Possibly my favorite development is that MusOpen has organized its planned symphony recordings for this January. In September, 2010, the free culture organization raised over $68,000 (several times their $11,000 goal) through a Kickstarter campaign, with the intent of commissioning a "internationally renowned orchestra" to perform the Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky symphonies.
Film is a very comprehensive art form, probably the most that we have available to us at the moment, so it should be no surprise that a free film project severely tests the limits of available free software, not only for authoring the film, but also for collaborating on its creation. In the case of "Lunatics", we need to combine some of the community development software that is frequently used for free software development with tools allowing a lighter-weight interaction more comfortable for creative contributors, and finally, a fan-friendly public face. It's tricky, and I don't think we're really all the way there yet, but over this Summer, I've managed to find and assemble the necessary parts for our online presence. My solution combines several different platforms, and uses a few remote or "cloud" services as well.
Recently, I was directed toward an excellent analysis of commons-based peer production as a phenomenon which separates "entrepreneurs" (who want to get things done and create value in the world) from "capitalists" (who want to get a return on an investment of property without contributing any labor). An observer -- clearly outside of the community of free software developers -- expressed dismay at the example of Mozilla Foundation, which makes money from the open source Mozilla project, but does not pay for most voluntarily contributed code improvements to the Mozilla software. Is he right? Is this exploitation of those contributors?
Well, it's not exactly brand new, but I am taking my first real look at Ubuntu Studio 11.04 (based on Ubuntu "Natty Narwhal"). This is what we decided to put on our "guest" computer when Debian "Wheezy" proved not to be so easy, and it gives us an opportunity to step out of our rut and look at a new GNU/Linux distribution.
We're putting the finishing touches on our initial Kickstarter campaign for our free-culture science-fiction web series "Lunatics", which is being made with free software tools in a process very similar to free software development. This is an experiment in commercial free culture, using the platform that has quickly come to be the standard for this kind of project fund-raising. Is Kickstarter all it's cracked up to be? I think it is, and for this installment in my "making free movies with free software" series, I'd like to explain why.
Home recording is not that hard or expensive to do, and Audacity provides a great tool for recording and editing dialog. I recently got the equipment together to do decent voice recording for our "Lunatics" video project. Total cost was under $150.00 for a condenser USB microphone system, and the sound is a tremendous improvement over my previous attempts. Now our biggest challenge is the room acoustics. So far, we're having a lot of fun recording dialog.
Digging through "free" sites to sort the "free beer" from the "free speech" content is quite a chore. Many of the sites are not useful for free culture projects, and many make it very difficult to tell. Fortunately for you, I took notes! Here you will find 8 sites with free-licensed content, 8 more with licenses that you'll probably find acceptable for many projects, and 20 others that might be useful on some projects if you're not a purist. There are also 22 sites I have to warn you away from, because their terms are incompatible with use in free-licensed productions.
One of the most irritating myths promulgated by the entertainment industry is the idea that copyright is an ethical imperative because it's bad to "steal other people's ideas". This is frequently combined with an illustrative story of plagiarism -- in other words, a situation in which someone fraudulently claims credit for someone else's work. Of course, this is nonsense. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are two completely different things. Although they sometimes occur together, there are many examples of either without the other. And if your eyes just glazed over -- no problem: Nina Paley has made it easy with her new Minute Meme for QuestionCopyright.org, called "Credit is Due".
I never really "trusted" Facebook or Google+. That is to say, I never expected them to respect my privacy or keep my secrets. I'm not too secretive online anyway, and what I do have to hide, I just don't post. But it is very clear that there is a great deal of corruption inherent in a business model which is based on concentrating the personal data from millions of users and selling that data to advertisers. At the very least, there must be a free alternative. But for that alternative to be viable, we need to use it. Identica has been around for some time now (and I use it -- I'm "digitante"), and Diaspora is (after a long hard start) finally getting some wind under its wings. I've used it, and it's Good Enough. In fact, you'll find it's pretty similar to what Facebook or Google+ offers, although there are still some rough spots.
As I mentioned in my previous column, my son and I want to explore robotics as a hobby and a learning experience. We don't have an unlimited budget, so I wanted to do some estimating of what it would cost to do it using different technology standards. In the first part, I explored Lego Mindstorms, but the open-hardware (and free software) Arduino system has been getting better and better. So I want to consider that possibility in this column and make a comparison to see which is a better option for us.
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?
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.
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.