All posts by Thomas Holbrook II

About 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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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.

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!”

LG Chromebase front and side view

Is Writer the Internet Typewriter?

So many options exist for writing on the Chromebook that it can make heads spin.  The best way to assess writing tools is to go over their pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. In this article, let’s take a look at Writer from Big Huge Labs.

In the Chrome Store, they advertise it as “The Internet Typewriter,” but is it justified?  Is it unique or another me too product? Writer itself works inside the web browser.  Offline capability is advertised, and it appears to work even though it’s used as a perk for a pro account.  Speaking of which, a message advertising enhanced features appears when it’s opened in a new tab.

Writer's upgrade message on startup.
Upon startup, the user is offered an opportunity to learn more about pro accounts.

Before going into the proposed perks of a pro account, it’s important to look at the mainstay of this app.  As a text editor, is it unique or a me too product?

Writer's interface.
The interface is reminiscent of an old school computer from the 1980’s.

The default color scheme may remind computer enthusiasts of the 1980’s.  A black background and lime green text is most definitely a throwback to the era of personal computers before color monitors became available.  So what features are available?

Using cookies on your Chromebook or other computer, documents are saved automatically.  Users can create accounts through OpenID, so a Google account can be integrated.  By creating an account, documents can be saved and retrieved in the event said cookies are deleted.

Printing can be done as well as direct export to PDF, though Big Huge Labs will automatically place an advertisment for them in your document.  Said advertisement can be negated through a pro account.

Speaking of exporting, PDF is not the only option.

Exporting options for Writer.
From plain text to Tumblr, there are plenty of options for exporting a finished work.

Exporting to WordPress, Tumblr, Moveable Type, TypePad, and LiveJournal opens the door for distraction free writing for bloggers.  All of that is well and good, but what sets this apart from other online text editors?

Writer options
Text and background color can be changed. A typewriter sound can be enabled as well.

The text color and background can be changed. So can line spacing, font, and font size. The one thing that really sets Writer apart is the fact that sounds can be played as the user is typing.  Yes, I’m talking about typewriting sounds, whether it’s old fashioned or electronic.

The sounds work by the way, so yes, it is indeed an Internet typewriter.

Though it has the mainstay ability of editing text, it is a unique app that offers plenty of benefits for pro subscriptions:

  • Real time word count
  • Thesaurus
  • Revision history
  • Cloud storage (Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote)
  • Offline mode (it appears to sort of work despite not having a pro account, though automatic syncing may be an extra feature)
  • Premium support
  • Custom print options (including removal of all Big Huge Labs branding)
  • Influence on future versions
  • Future updates
  • Guaranteed satisfaction with a refund policy of seven days

So is it suitable?  It depends on whether extra features are desired and/or needed.  Though they are enticing, if one is too used to having free of cost products all the time, it may be a turn off.  The typewriter sounds that are available make the product unique, but could be annoying depending on the situation.

At this point, it depends on personal preference, though the extras do make this text editor worthwhile.

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Death of net neutrality: Is Mozilla barking up the wrong tree?

Net Neutrality has been quite the conversation during the last several months. Without the free flow of information, the topology of the entire Internet would be defeated in its entirety. So when Mozilla recently proposed that the FCC categorize remote delivery services as telecommunications services, I personally sympathized with the members of the well known non-profit.

After all, I don’t care for the idea of ISP’s messing with the topology of the Internet.

They even have a wiki page set up. I am all for the idea of having access to information without being impeded by large corporations. However, I take issue with the reliance on agencies of the Federal Government of the United States in order to achieve true Net Neutrality. For starters, I have already pointed out that these are the same entities that turned a blind eye to NSA wiretapping and spying.

The EFF responded to an inquiry to that same piece regarding a court ruling on the FCC treating ISP’s as telephone carriers. Here it is again to act as a reminder of where the real problem may actually lie:

EFF is not surprised at the court’s decision. There was much of value in the FCC’s Open Internet Principles, and we still think those principles are a good starting point for conversation. But we were deeply concerned that the FCC was attempting to claim broad authority to regulate the Internet. No government agency should have that authority, so we are glad this decision clarifies that. As we look towards the future, Internet users need to have a pragmatic and open discussion about ways to promote and defend a neutral Internet. In the meantime, ISPs must comply with their transparency obligations so that customers can see if their Internet providers are giving them the non-discriminatory service they expect and deserve.

So when Mozilla sent its proposal to the FCC, they may very well have been barking up the wrong tree. If they really want to rely on anyone from the Federal Government for help regarding Net Neutrality, then they should go to the legislative branch instead of an agency; Congress and the Senate in other words.

So if going to the FCC and possibly other entities and politicians within the government isn’t the solution, what is? This piece from Ars Technica regarding Level 3’s accusations of ISP’s dropping packets on purpose may give us a clue. According to Mark Taylor of Level 3, in which Ars quoted:

Five of those congested peers are in the United States and one is in Europe. There are none in any other part of the world. All six are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market. In countries or markets where consumers have multiple Broadband choices (like the UK) there are no congested peers.

So in other words, without a proper amount of competition, double dipping on content providers and customers is going to happen. That is why Netflix has paid money to Comcast in order to have better access to their subscribers. Techdirt has referenced work from Tim Berners Lee that points towards more competition as the solution.

Mike Masnick of that publication also argues in favor of more broadband competition, and just what are the likes of AT&T doing again? Just trying to prevent it, hence this petition from SumOfUs. So what is the real solution again?

First, fighting back against companies like AT&T by demanding more transparency from them in regards to lobbying against allowing grass roots broadband providers from existing. The next step is to get involved at the local level and figure out how set up a city wide broadband network.

After all, when Google Fiber came to Kansas City, other ISP’s started offering higher speeds. Competition does wonders in terms of quality of service. When competition exists, bad behavior can be punished by going to a different provider. Such a thing can’t happen if monopolies exist, and if that’s the case, the government is the only alternative; a dangerous proposition indeed.

So in other words, look into the mirror. You are the solution, not the FCC.

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Mobile Broadband: What are the Challenges?

When I had normal access to cable Internet, I had taken it for granted. Since moving to a more rural area, I have not had a chance to set up high-speed Internet. My mainstay for access?

Mobile broadband through my mobile provider.

T-Mobile's Mobile Hotspot
Depending on the phone plan, T-Mobile lets users activate a mobile hotspot for broadband access.

T-Mobile is my provider, and one of the selling points of their current monthly plans is mobile hotspot access.  While many things can be done via smartphone, there are some things that require a keyboard and a mouse/touchpad.

It’s how I’ve been able to write for this website and why I invested in a WiFi-only model of the Samsung Chromebook.

What can I do via mobile broadband? Just about anything, including some online games (so long as I’m not on for too long). Social networking, web surfing, blogging, and more are accessible virtually anywhere.

What about the challenges?

The rural area that I live in only has edge network speeds, and data access is not consistent, so even web surfing is iffy at best.  Where I work, there’s 4G access, but there’s a few small problems that can make things a royal pain.

For starters, let’s say that a major storm hits. Since my provider is T-Mobile, if one of their towers gets hit, I won’t have service for several hours. Every other network has a better chance of staying up.

Another issue that could be problematic depending on how often I’m online is the fact that each plan has a cap for mobile hotspot. On my current plan, I have 2.5 GB of access to mobile broadband.

It’s ideal for most things, but online gaming and VOIP sessions would eat away at that cap in a matter of hours.

Then there’s the issue of interference. When I was working on a piece regarding the FCC’s proposed rules that would affect Net Neutrality on my lunch break, everybody else decided to use all three microwaves in the break room at the same time.

Microwaves
The one thing that kills a WiFi signal in a split second: multiple microwaves running at once!

Goodbye WiFi signal, hello anger, frustration, and choice expletives.

As I already alluded to, depending on coverage areas, mobile broadband may not be ideal for an individual. One thing’s for certain: I appreciate having a home-based ISP, even if it turns out to be DSL in the future.

fcc-website

Is FCC the solution for net neutrality?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the recent rulings regarding the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules. The rules were struck down because Internet was not deemed to be the same as telephone service, thus causing the regulator to go back to the drawing board.

I also took a contrarian view on the matter, and for good reason.

It seems that like most Federal Government organizations in the United States, they have changed their minds.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, it seems that a policy shift is being proposed. The phrase “open Internet” has loosened as new rules would allow for major companies to negotiate higher prices for a faster lane.

In other words, companies like Netflix and others would have to cough up more money in order to provide content to their customers in a faster manner. The costs would be passed on to the consumer.

It makes sense, right? The more money a company gets from services, the better lanes that can be provided. After all, toll roads tend to be cleaner and better maintained, right?

The problem is that ISP’s are more than capable of increasing speeds in the U.S., but choose not to so they can gouge consumers for more money. For those who are in areas that offer Google Fiber, have you noticed how prices have mysteriously dropped and services have improved on the part of the competition?

In order for services to improve and become more cost effective, competition is needed. Unfortunately, companies like AT&T are using lobbying groups like ALEC to push for legislation barring cities from having municipal broadband. That’s like utility companies preventing rural areas from using co-ops to provide electricity.

When monopolies exist, you have high prices and poor service.

So if government agencies aren’t changing their minds on rules they are wanting to impose, regardless of the Constitutionality (or lack thereof), corporate interests are lobbying to prevent grass roots competition.

Now do you understand why I said that the politicians aren’t always the solutions to our problems?

We need to step up and actually do something about this. For starters, there’s a petition on SumOfUs.org calling for more transparency on the part of AT&T. The next step would be to go to other providers and avoid that company at all costs.

Hit them where it hurts the most–their wallets!

The next step is to check each state to see if grass roots networks can be created. If so, then do what you can to have a broadband network in your neck of the woods. It’s time that people became more savvy when it comes to technology and computer networks.

Now would be a good time to start before corrupt government agencies, politicians, and corporations can stop you.

This is Chrome's default tab page.

Florida on bloggers didn’t go far enough

Remember when the word “blog” was first being bandied about? That was back in the early 2000’s when free web hosting from Geocities and Angelfire was still a big deal. Then the idea began taking off, especially after bloggers exposed Jeff Gannon of “Talon News” as James Guckert.

It was a sordid affair that left CNN and other so called “mainstream” outlets in the dust as it proved how irrelevant they were becoming.

Unfortunately, people in positions of power aren’t dealing with this new media very well. Neither are businessmen such as Christopher Comins. He attempted to sue a blogger because they posted about him shooting two dogs in a field. Comins claimed that bloggers such as Matthew Frederick VanVoorhis didn’t count as media since he was a blogger.

A Florida court disagreed.

While many of us may want to simply say, “Well, duh!” we shouldn’t be celebrating just yet. After all, those living in the United States are still in the same climate in which the so called “Media Shield” law doesn’t apply to those who aren’t “sanctioned media.”

That means the likes of Glenn Greenwald and others who report news in a manner that isn’t favorable to political entities that may have power at any given time are having their freedom of speech abridged in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

All one has to do is look at the Media Shield section on the Huffington Post to get a clear picture of the problem. There are those in the nation’s capitol who are wanting to redefine media when all they have to do is read the amendment in question. When it says that Congress shall pass no law regarding freedom of speech or the press, that means they are not allowed to define what constitutes media. Why? Simple; you and I are media. All of us are.

If more than one person can hear our voices, that is media.  It’s an extension of our freedom of speech.

This does not mean any entity or individual should be forced to conform to the popular point of view of its time either nor should they be forced to reveal sources in the name of “national security.” We all know very well how much that line has been abused in the past, and Dirking at the Tewe shouldn’t be putting up with that excuse in order to violate the rights of an individual who is simply conveying a message.

So while the Florida court is on the right track when they basically told Mr. Comins that bloggers are indeed media, that is only a ruling related to Florida, and not one that will necessarily impact Florida. What needs to happen is for the case, as stupid as it is, to be pushed even higher to force the Supreme Court to declare that bloggers are simply exercising their first amendment rights.

In the meantime, citizens need to remind their Congress people and Senators that freedom of speech applies to all of us, not when it only agrees with their point of view.

pixlr-editor-1

Pixlr Image Editor – Photoshop for Chromebooks?

There’s been a lot of talk about the cloud as of late.  Nowadays it seems that everybody’s getting in the game of cloud computing.  Even Adobe has cloud offerings of its own and they’re going more towards software as a service as opposed to selling a pricey license every few years.

Even then, the price of a subscription is out of reach, and for most users, Photoshop is too powerful for their needs.  Furthermore, it’s a pain to get working on Linux-based systems.  One option is to use a cross platform program for image editing and creation.

Then there’s Pixlr.

Pixlr is an online image editing tool that can be run from any web browser on any platform, including Chrome OS.  The utility was started by Ola Sevandersson in 2008 and was aimed at non-professionals. AutoDesk bought it out in 2011.  So what does it look like?

pixlr-editor-1
In addition to touching up photos, there’s also some painting tools. Layers are supported for more advanced options.

 

Like most image editing tools that have some power to them, touching up tools are available, such as red eye removal.  There’s also the painting tools as well.  Layers are also supported.

Since Pixlr is designed to work in the cloud, images can be saved and obtained from the cloud.  This convenience makes it easy to edit and share changes quickly.  Want to edit an image from a specific URL?

Pixlr can import it.

[epiclink link = ‘https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/pixlr-editor/icmaknaampgiegkcjlimdiidlhopknpk’ color = ‘btn btn-info’ target = ‘_blank’ shorticon = ‘left’ itype = ‘ icon-download-alt’ icol = ‘black’ ]Get Pixlr Image Eitor[/epiclink]
opening dialog
Images can be opened from a computer, social networking/photo sharing site, or a separate URL.

In order to load images from a library, one must have an account with Pixlr.  It’s simple to connect your Google account.  From there, connecting your Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa web albums allows access to images that can be saved directly to those services.

Pixlr Library Options
Images can be obtained from Facebook and image sharing sites such as Flickr.

File format support includes PNG, JPEG, BMP, TIFF, and PXD (Pixlr’s native format).  For Chromebooks, Pixlr is a huge plus, because the save to computer option can access Google Drive directly.  As an image editor, it’s excellent, but there are a couple of caveats.

For starters, it relies on Adobe Flash, which is cross platform but a resource hog.  Avoid having too many tabs open.

The other issue is that GIF support is lacking, so creating animations is currently not possible.

Thomas drinking coffee
Some blurring and old photo effect was applied to this image.

Still, it is an excellent image editing and creation tool that’s easy to use and powerful enough for cool effects.

achshareplayermain

Is Achshar Player better than Remo on Chrome OS?

While Google Play Music does come in handy for listening to songs as well as purchasing them.  However, it’s not always a viable option on a Chromebook, especially if there is no access to the Internet.  Integrated playback for music works, but lacks the ability to manage an entire library.

So what other options are available for offline mode?

Remo is available, but is simply window dressing to existing features with a few minor extras (equalizer and control through your smart phone).  For an alternative, there is Achshar, a Chrome extension that plays audio.

achshareplayermain
The player has most of the normal controls found in other music players.

The player is built using HTML 5 and Javascript. It can play any audio file that is already supported by Chrome OS.

But is it better than Remo?

To find out, I decided to install the extension through the Chrome Web Store.

Songs can be navigated, played, and paused through these controls.
Songs can be navigated, played, and paused through these controls.

Songs can be navigated with the forward and backwards button.  The play button also acts as the pause button while a song is playing.  These controls are available on the upper left hand corner of the local page for the player.

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Looping, shuffling, and Tweeting the current song on Twitter are among the unique features.

In the center of the page is the portion that shows what’s currently playing.  Looping and shuffling are available, and the currently playing song can be tweeted by clicking the Twitter icon.

The song's volume can be changed, though it isn't synced with Chrome OS's sound system.
The song’s volume can be changed, though it isn’t synced with Chrome OS’s sound system.

The volume control is functional, though not quite in sync with Chrome OS’s volume. Still, the music can be turned down given the appropriate situation.

On the left hand portion of the player under the main controls is the menu, which is where the library can be managed.  Songs can be added individually or from entire folders.  There are a few options regarding notifications and what is displayed in said notifications.

The menu for Achshar is where the library is managed and settings are changed.
The menu for Achshar is where the library is managed and settings are changed.

The library itself can be managed and playlists can be created and edited.  The search feature can also be used to find that one favorite song to play.

The playlist can be reordered, thus allowing for a better experience.
The playlist can be reordered, thus allowing for a better experience.

The one thing that Remo lacks Achshar has. Songs in playlists can be reordered, thus allowing for a more custom listening experience.  Of course there are other extras such as changing the color theme and text color along with labels, but they are sparse and simple.  The player does what its supposed to; play music while allowing for playlists to be reordered.

Though it lacks an equalizer and the ability to be controlled through a smart phone, Achshar is indeed better than Remo. The eye candy is kept to a minimum while allowing for a somewhat custom look through the color theme options in the extension’s settings.  Best of all, it works offline.

There’s also a better presence in terms of social media. The player has a Facebook fan page and Google+ page. The author even has a Twitter account.

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Why free media standards are important

Do you trust your newspaper? How about the news on TV?  Maybe you prefer getting your fix for what’s happening around you online. In other words, do you trust the media?

If your answer is no, you’re not alone. According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 60% of Americans have little to no trust of the mass media in terms of accuracy and fairness in reporting. The U.K. also has a similar problem when it comes to trust of the media. When looking at the world, a great number of countries are dissatisfied with their local media or media in some way.

Some more insights can be found here. The big question at this point is how to improve the media? What’s the starting point?

To understand what I’m going to be arguing, we need to take a look at some history. In the middle ages in Europe, books were rather expensive. Only the clergy and wealthy were able to afford to obtain books and read them; after all, copying was an expensive process and they had to know Latin.

Enter Gutenberg and his printing press. When the cost of book making went down as a result of what he accomplished, the demand for books in local languages and education increased. Though Gutenberg was not the first to make such machine, it did have an impact.

This meant that printing became cheaper, and so did publication.

The reason I went back to the 1400’s is rather simple; in order for alternative media to become better than traditional venues, they need to stop relying on proprietary software. Virtually everywhere one looks for rich content, they will run into software that isn’t liberated.

Popular outlets utilize YouTube and other sites to get their message out to their respective audiences, but are they liberated from corporate influence, or are they shackled without realizing it? Even Russia’s RT relies on Adobe Flash for their 24/7 streaming video channel.

Most corporate media sites that provide streaming video use the same technology, and are paying for it with licensing costs. Those who own their own digital printing press are able to control their message, but they don’t truly own it if they have to use proprietary technology in order to broadcast their message.

So why worry about this anyway? Just ask the likes of Ernie Ball and others. The Business Software Alliance has overstepped their bounds before, and will continue to do so.

With the arcane way that licenses have to be archived and tracked (with receipts no less), perhaps it’s time to move away from proprietary media standards and move towards free standards.  Here are some examples:

  • Instead of using MP3 for streaming audio/podcasting, why not use OGG instead?
  • For video, there’s WebM instead of the other formats.
  • Instead of Skype, why not look into WebRTC?
  • Instead of relying on YouTube or other websites that could censor your video at any time, why not look into MediaGoblin and build your own media server?

By relying on free media standards instead of proprietary standards, you’re not only freeing yourself from licensing costs. You’re also freeing yourself from the control of major corporations. If you don’t truly own your digital printing press, then your speech isn’t truly free.

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The curious case of RT in the United States of America

In the recent weeks regarding the controversy of the situation in the Ukraine, we have seen various arguments on whether Putin’s actions were good or bad. The beauty of the Internet and alternative media is that an actual conversation can take place.  However, there is an issue with blind trust regarding alternative venues, and it’s time that we start paying attention.

Recently, Liz Wahl decided to publicly quit her job as an anchor for RT, a 24/7 TV channel funded by the Russian Government. One of the reasons that RT has gained popularity was due to coverage of certain topics that other venues either ridiculed or ignored in their entirety. When one examines the past of RT, one shouldn’t be surprised as to why Wahl decided to walk away from the network.

For starters, it’s state funded. Any venue that is funded by any government is not truly independent, especially when coverage of events is skewed in favor of said government. Some controversy is allowed for RT so long as it doesn’t involve the Russian government.

Even Adam Kokesh walked away from the network, and this quote from his Adam Vs the Man website may give some insight as to why:

So RT America picked up ADAM VS THE MAN as a TV show on national cable for 30 minutes, weeknights. While some were shocked that a state-funded media outlet would hire a libertarian, if you understand RT to be the Russian government poking the American government in the eye, it makes perfect sense and Adam was happy to be a part of that effort. Unfortunately, after four successful months in which the show quickly came to regularly outperform other similar shows on the network, they decided to part ways and Adam decided to strike out on his own.

Just because some controversial topics are discussed does not mean one should trust one media entity over another.  Truly independent media, venues that are not backed by corporations or governments, are needed more than ever. Independent Media Centers can help fulfill general coverage in an independent way, sites such as this one and 2600 can help in terms of different perspectives on computers and technology, and other sites can be utilized for alternative perspectives on just about any topic.

Just be aware that there will always be a slant no matter which venue it is and that objectivity does not truly exist, for we are all human.