LP – People

I met so many new people at Libre Planet that I cannot remember all of them. I also finally met Mako, Evan, Kat, Mike and Asheesh physically for the first time, after six or seven years of online contact in some cases. But due to a combination of jet lag and convention duties I hardly got to talk to any of them. I must do better next time…

LP – Gnash

The world wide web is locked in at least in part to the proprietary Flash format. Replacements such as the HTML 5 canvas tag are emerging (although they have their own issues, see Stallman’s new essay “The Javascript Trap”), but here and now Flash is an unavoidable part of the experience of the internet. The official Flash player is not free. So a free replacement must be written.

That free replacement is the Gnash player. Rob Savoye gave a talk about how that project is progressing. He founded Cygnus solutions and worked on GCC before working on Gnash, so he’s bringing plenty of hacking experience to the project.

Rob explained that the next release of Gnash, later this year, will support Flash 9 and (in a bit of news of great interest to those of us in the UK) the BBC’s iPlayer Flash interface.

In a discussion session on Sunday someone asked about Flash authoring on GNU/Linux. There are tools both for compiling ActionScript (MTASC) and for compiling graphics and sound assets (swfmill). I developed the Flash version of draw-something using MTASC and Emacs for example.

Whether you develop using Free Software or not, if you develop Flash 8 web sites please test them against Gnash and report any differences in behaviour as bugs. This will help the Gnash project help you with an even better Gnash player.

The Gnash project, like many free software projects, needs financial support, so if you can help do get in touch with them.

LP – Ogg Theora

Christopher Montgomery gave a detail-packed presentation about the development, freeing and status of the Theora video codec. If you like video formats then the details of how Theora grids, quantizes, compresses, schedules and otherwise munges video data are fascinating. If you don’t then the details of how Theora fits into the free video formats ecosystem are fascinating. Montgomery sees Theora as finding its natural place in the low-to-medium-end and online delivery sections of the market, and the BBC’s Dirac finding its natural place at the high end and professional editing sections of the market (if I remember correctly).

If you are considering using Ogg Theora then support for it will be available in the long term, and any future changes won’t break compatibility so it is a good, stable, reliable format for video. And with Firefox it out of the box for HTML 5’s video tag, it’s going to be the best option for free video online.

LP – FLOSS Manuals Book Sprint

After making friends with the FLOSS Manuals guys I was initially worried by how few people were in the base room for their book sprint. I needn’t have worried. As well as more people joining the room over the course of the weekend many other people were joining in from neighbouring rooms using the Harvard Science Centre’s wireless network and also online.

This particular book sprint was dedicated to producing a book to serve as an introduction to the GNU command line. I asked arund for such a book last year and Benjamin Mako Hill’s excellent “Debian GNU/Linux Super Bible” was recommended to me. FLOSS Manuals’ “GNU/Linux Commands”  book is different, it is a more general introduction to the command line for users on any GNU distro. It is ideal for people who are new to GNU’s userland and to the idea of the UNIX command line in general.

“GNU/Linux Commands” starts with a very good example of how the command line can be more efficient than a GUI (a point that GUI users often do need persuading of), then builds up from the very basics to advanced shell scripting and other languages over 196 pages. Completing an 196 page book to the point where it can be printed over a weekend, even with planning and some contributions beforehand, is quite an achievement and a good demonstration of how free and collaborative projects (or “commons-based peer production” if we must) can succeed in new areas outside of software production.

The sprint served as a focus for activity from around the world. The results were very successful and I think exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s a model that I think other non-software projects should consider emulating if they can. You can buy the book here.

LP – Elphel

The Elphel camera is an HD video camera running free software and with a free hardware design. Cameras may seem an unlikely subject for software freedom but digital still and video cameras are computers and by using them we use software. That software can be made proprietary which disempowers the camera’s users, as I found recently when trying to interface my SLR digital camera to my GNU/Linux laptop.

The Elphel camera runs GNU/Linux and an FGPA system to handle its image data. The lens and sensor chip can be of any kind that the motherboard can be reprogrammed to handle. For manufacturers an easily hackable motherboard and software changes their relationship with upstream suppliers, making their manufacturing and procurement processes more agile.

For camera users this is a completely hackable camera. Whether for film production, medical or forensic or scientific studies or for other uses, it can be modified to do precisely what its user wants. Imagine bullet time or stop-frame animation made with a camera that can be programmed and networked to handle the unique demands of a given film or even a given scene.

I was excited by the potential of the Elphel, and given my own past experiences of projects that have been frustrated by webcam, digital video and digital still cameras I hope that digital arts hackers in particular can find new ways of exploiting its capabilities.

LP – Linux Libre

Alexandre Oliva’s talk on the Linux Libre kernel was one of the clearest and most persuasive presentations of the what, why and how of a project that I’ve ever seen. It’s shocking that the Linux kernel has non-free software in it. The Linux Libre project has written a system to clean out that non-free software (not so much removing functionality as adding freedom) and provide a truly free kernel.

One issue that Alexandre raised which I hadn’t considered before is of code legibility as an issue for freedom. If code consists of incomprehensible blobs of data that’s one thing, but incomprehensible code can also thwart a user’s ability to study and modify a program.

I installed Linux Libre on my laptop running Fedora before attending Libre Planet. The only change I had to make was the addition of a free wireless network link. It’s a usable kernel for GNU that respects your freedom. Try it!

LP – Scheduling

The first day of talks at Libre Planet was scheduled, the second day was open to suggestions. These were gathered using sticky notes and organized on a wiki. This worked very well, with a good balance of thorough presentations of projects and issues and more open discussions.

With three concurrent tracks on the second day there was no avoiding some talks being more popular than others. In particular the impromptu mobile phone talk was a big draw.

Some people would have liked time to hack, which is definitely something to bear in mind for next year. When I first visited the FLOSS Manuals book sprint base room I was worried by how few people were in there, but I later found out that not only were people joining in online but that people at the conference were adding to the book using the wireless network while sat in other rooms. So hack events can be both a useful focus and more distributed than I had previously thought.

From the leaders of well known charities through representatives of corporations large and small to college students, everyone had a say. There were even impromptu musical performances.

The FSF are soliciting feedback from attendees here.

Fixing a Dishwasher with 3D Printing and Lisp

Andreas Fuchs’ Journal: Clojure and Art of Illusion: BFF.

Interesting story about using Clojure Lisp to make a program wheel for a dishwasher. Printing obscure replacement parts and tools will be a strong use of 3D printing for domestic users. It’s cheaper for companies than keeping inventory, and easier for consumers than hunting that inventory down.

LP – Photos from the conference

Excellent photos from Libre Planet, BY-SA by Matt Hins –

Photos from the conference – Free Software Foundation

I think I can spot myself in three of the photos, here’s one (I’m on the right of the image) –

LP – The FSF

I hung out at the FSF offices on Friday to help prepare for Libre Planet. If you’ve ever wondered where donations to the FSF go then let me assure you that it’s money well spent. The team are very capable and are focussed on software freedom, and their offices are modest and well organised.

(It was great to see one of the team wearing one of the t-shirts I designed as well.)