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Terry Hancock on Free Software and Free Culture [Interview]

Advocates of Free Software aren’t made in a single night. When it comes to computers, software, and digital art, inspiration and motivation are of utmost importance. Terry Hancock, part owner of Anansi Spaceworks and Free Software Magazine columnist, was surrounded by all three growing up.

His mother and aunt were fans of science fiction. “My aunt gave me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet, which was the first novel I ever read.” Hancock said. For as long as he can remember, he watched Star Trek growing up with his mother.

Terry Hancock

He contributes to Free Software Magazine.

When asked about his first memory of computers, he said, “When I was a kid, computers were still largely mythical beasts that lurked in far-away warehouses operated by mysterious experts. But my first real experience with one was about the late-1970s when my uncle visited and brought a 300 baud modem and teletype. You know, the old kind where you would actually put the telephone headset onto it. You typed into it like a typewriter, and the computer responded — all of it on paper. The computer itself was at his company’s site in Chicago.”

Text based games such as Star Trek and Adventure were enjoyed on such a system. Adventure was developed using Fortran, and is where the word “xyzzy” originated. Though both games are available as free software, they’ve been overshadowed by today’s current offerings.

It was around this time that he first encountered ASCII bitmap images.

The uncle who worked for the Chicago holding company and showed him the teletype was the one who introduced him to the concept of free software, but understanding didn’t fully materialize until later in life when he would encounter the essays of Richard Stallman.

At age 14, he would use his earnings from his job at Six Flags Over Texas to acquire a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer, which would be his first. As for what he did with it, “I mostly just wrote BASIC programs on them to do fun graphics stuff and simple games.”

It certainly wouldn’t be his last system.

“Another uncle of mine introduced me to personal computers — he had a TRS-80 Model I, which actually, I later got as a hand-me-down when I went to college.” Hancock said.

He learned Z80 assembler on that machine and used Scripsit to write papers. His first exposure to Unix was also in college. “In the 1980s, I used BSD Unix on machines at the University of Texas, where I wrote data-reduction software in Fortran. I wasn’t all that knowledgeable about the computers themselves (basically I just saw them as a platform for running my Fortran software).”

His technical understanding would increase in the near future.

Towards the end of the 1990’s, he began looking for alternatives to Microsoft products. He said, “I was still using Windows 3.1 until about ’99, because I had seen Windows 95 and not liked the direction it was going: more bloat, less control for the user.”

It was around this time that complaints against the Redmond Giant for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows and for tactics with OEMs would result in an antitrust lawsuit from the Department of Justice. After a few months with Windows 95, Hancock would decide to move on.

Working at Extrasolar Research, a private research company that no longer exists, he would deal with Macintoshes and a Unix system running Solaris. GNU utilities were popular by then as well, so he installed some of them.

In 2000, he decided to install Debian 2.1 “Slink.” His interface of choice was the FVWM Window Manager, and he wrote papers using Netscape Communicator. “It was pretty clunky. On the other hand, I enjoyed using a POSIX command line again.” Hancock said. By 2002, he recovered all the capabilities he was used to having while running Windows, a technical and economic win.

Not only was Hancock an adopter of free software, he was a pioneer in using it in free media creation. Initially, he tried creating an adventure game similar to the genre of graphic adventure games from Sierra. He created the Light Princess project on SourceForge, and began recruiting artists. During his attempt, he made a startling discovery.

“I had asked around for why these kind of games didn’t exist in free software, and I got an answer along the lines of: ‘Well, they require lots of art, and artists just don’t want to release their work under free licenses.'” Hancock said.

His primary focus was to have the art resources created before recruiting programmers.Two years before the creation of the Creative Commons, he managed to find artists willing to not only create said resources, but to release them under a license that allowed for sharing with the public. Where did he find them?

On anime fan art sites.

The issue with free software programmers at the time is that they only talked to programmers. “They didn’t take the time to go find out where the artists were.” Hancock said. He found four individuals willing to contribute artistic talent to the project, and the resources would be released under the Design Science License, a copyleft license that allowed for sharing with other people.

Unfortunately, the project didn’t go far. Starting the programming process is difficult, especially with lack of programming experience. Beyond character design, a dungeon map, and some animations using Inkscape and batch scripts, things stalled and the artists lost interest.

In the meantime, Blender became available as free software in 2005. Multimedia creation in the free software realm was also improving, so the focus shifted to art only projects. He wrote the book, Achieving Impossible Things with Free Culture and Commons Based Enterprise, which explains in detail his experiences in free software and free culture.

One obstacle was still on his mind, however. “The one thing that really bothered me, though, was that I still couldn’t see any way to make it pay for itself. You need a team effort to make a film project, and that runs into the volunteer issues and the irreducible size problem that had been such a barrier for free multimedia software.” Hancock said.

Still, he managed to use what he had learned with the Light Princess Project, his observations from other projects such as the Morvena Project and Sita Sings the Blues, and combine them with his passion for space exploration.

Nina Paley and Karl Fogel of Question Copyright would have a significant influence on Hancock’s way of thinking regarding copyright, particularly with a non-copyright-driven post-release strategy. “Enforcement of copyright law is laughably erratic. No one really buys officially-licensed products because they fear enforcement. They do it, because deep down, they feel it’s the right thing to do.” Hancock said.

In other words, it was simply a matter of creating something that fans could connect with. Enforcement of laws wasn’t necessary, especially if said fans knew they were supporting the artists directly. The only question was what to create.

Both he and his wife, Rosalyn Hunter, would have an idea that would blossom into such a project.

“Rosalyn and I have attended a number of space advocacy events, and in fact we met through the “University of Texas Students for the Exploration and Development of Space” (UT-SEDS). It was at one of the National Space Society’s “International Space Development Conferences” that we first got the initial inspiration for Lunatics. There are a lot of strong and occasionally rather awkward personalities among space advocates.” Hancock said.

After overhearing a convention attendee discuss hypothetical scenarios about being trapped with someone else on a tiny spaceship all the way to Mars, the gears would begin turning. Discussing various characters and scenarios, the idea for Lunatics was born. “The name
Lunatics!” seemed fairly obvious, since it’s kind of a gag-name for Moon-colonization advocates. A central theme is that there is a certain kind of crazy that you need to have to be a pioneer.”

Animation would be inspired from various anime shows such as Urusei Yatsura, Maison Ikkoku, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Escaflowne, and Nadesico. “Since we were watching so much anime at the time, it was easy to imagine these stories as anime series plots. And so I think I always saw them in my head as animated episodes.” Hancock said.

In 2009, production for a series format that was favorable towards the free culture business model would be possible. With the success of Elephants Dream and other Blender Open Movies, the only challenge left was putting it together for production.

Hunter would begin working on scripts while he worked on production, which would prove to be challenging for him due to lack of experience in film editing. Still, he wouldn’t have to put up with the hurdles from the movie industry itself.

“I am having to prove myself on this project. Which makes it more of an exciting challenge and a bigger deal if it succeeds, but also harder to get started. On the other hand, building a studio up from zero to do a free-culture-based production leaves us with less mental baggage from the industry.” Hancock said.

In late 2011, he raised money through a Kickstarter campaign so that he could pay Daniel Fu, a former participant of the Light Princess project, for character design. “Well-designed characters that the audience could relate to would be really critical, and I knew that wasn’t something I should be trying to do myself. Of course, Daniel did a fantastic job on this, and we raised the money to pay him for the modelsheets.” Hancock said.

In terms of distribution of Lunatics on a commercial medium, he initially considered a DVD release. With the availability of high definition, it wasn’t optimal. “Online, you can get the video for download at HD1080 resolution for free. But the DVD, which you pay for, is actually at much lower resolution. So you’re asking fans to shell out cash to buy an inferior copy of the episodes.” Hancock said.

He looked at Blu-Ray and found out that the DRM was much worse and harder to opt out of, if not impossible. Since Sony owns the standard, and the presses have proprietary contracts that require a significant royalty fee that goes towards the development of more copy restriction methods, Hancock decided to create a new standard.

Though existing software exists to recreate the interactive capabilities of a DVD and place them on an SD card or flash drive, he realized that something unique would be required. “So I thought, what we need is a distinct brand with a distinct customer expectation — just like DVD or Blu-Ray gives you, but for something based on free-software technology and media that can handle HD video and be available to low-budget film-makers.” Hancock said.

Thus Lib-Ray was born.

Aimed at independent film makers, it is an alternative container standard that uses WebKit to handle menus and MKV, currently using LibVLC, for video playback with multiple chapters. The MKV container uses the VP8 codec for video and FLAC for audio; Vorbis audio can be used as secondary audio for commentaries. Advanced Sub-Station Alpha is used for subtitles with support for the ub-Rip Text (SRT) file format.

What was sought was a standard of consistent quality. Bitrate-based metrics was insufficient. The aim was to be perfect to the human eye in a similar way in which CD audio was perfect for the ear. The standard relies on PSNR to measure quality as the aim is to be visually and audibly pleasing to those who watch and listen.

In other words, bitrates don’t always take the limits of human hearing and sight into account. As for testing the standard, it’s a work in progress.

“If there seems to be a call for it, we can establish some sort of vendor certification system in which we actually check that this quality standard is being upheld. Until then, we’ll simply have a script so that vendors can check whether they are up to spec.” Hancock said.

The plan is to make sure that each minute of video passes the 40 dB test.

The menu system utilizes HTML, but with a few caveats. Javascript is not needed for the main menu, but can be used for enhanced content from an Extras section. The user also gets the choice of whether to allow for links or resource fetches that ask for data off of the disk in the Extras section, but denied for basic playback.

Another challenge is the internationalization of the menus. No region coding is used for releases, but regions are established for the purpose of language selection. This calls for numerous subtitles and alternative audio tracks as well as menu text that’s easily translatable.

“This will be done by defining a limited technical vocabulary for disk menus, and then translating the set of text to any supported language. The player can then use simple substitution to replace menu text with translations” Hancock said.

Starting with a basic set of twelve languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rssian, German, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Indonesian/Malay), others can be added later and he hopes corrections can be made as bugs occur. He plans on having the files conform to the .po format due to familiarity on the part of translators, despite not using Gettext for the standard.

Not able to use Python and html5lib directly due to adding XML namespaces to the output, which is incompatible with the Webkit based menu, he had to get creative. “This means I’m now learning how to use Beautiful Soup for this part. Hopefully, that will solve it. The vocabulary substitution system is working already, though.” Hancock said.

All that is needed, is a programmer to create a better player.

“The design I’m working with is encapsulating the WebKit and VLC libraries, and it’s awkward, because I’m using them in ways that weren’t really intended — such as running client and server on the same machine and then sometimes violating that paradigm to make direct calls locally.” Hancock said.

Recognizing that he is way overdue on delivering on the Lib-Ray Kickstarter, he has run into the main issue that plagued him when working on the Light Princess project. “The software is indeed the bottleneck, because I’ll need it to get through the last bit of testing to make sure the releases are correct.” Hancock said. He also promised to include the software package in the releases as well.

Still, he carries on, just like free software has for many years. All of this despite being surrounded by large corporate entities.

It’s no surprise why his company is named Anansi Spaceworks.

The first part of the name was inspired by Kwaku Anansi of West African mythology. “Although smaller and less powerful than other creatures, Anansi is smart and agile and manages to succeed in a world of hulking dangers.” Hancock said. The company is a partnership between Hunter and himself.

Initially intended for production of space technology, it has changed direction numerous times. From attempting robotics and collaboration technologies (known today as open source hardware) to USGS planetary maps and education kits, things just didn’t quite go the way he expected.

“Entrepreneurship is like that: you try a lot of stuff, you fail a lot, and you hope that something you try pays off.” Hancock said.

We are looking for aspiring bloggers and journalists for The Mukt. If you are interested, apply now!

Plugging away, and not giving up, he also said, “We’ve had a few projects that sort of broke even, but no big successes as [of] yet. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. Possibly this means I’m pathologically optimistic. But let’s hope not!”

Thomas Holbrook II

Thomas first encountered FOSS while visiting the University of Central Missouri (then known as Central Missouri State University) during high school. Mandrake was the first distribution he ever attempted to run. He has had experience with SuSE, Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, and other distros. He currently does a podcast each week and publishes a monthly digital magazine covering Unix and Overlooked Pop Culture at www.thenixedreport.com.

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