All posts by Andrei Maberley

CCC Hits the Road

Under the Online Public Access in Libraries (OPAL) Program funding, The Edge took its digital literacy program, Creative Community Computing (CCC) regional, visiting libraries with a series of train-the-trainer workshops.

Touching down in Ayr, Ingham and Dysart in April and May, we tested a pilot program aimed at training local community members and Library staff in ICT self- sufficiency – using recycled computers and free, open source software.

With the challenge of packaging up and delivering 600kg of computers and other bits and pieces taken care of, we travelled to each town to deliver the three-day workshop. Participants learnt how to strip a computer bare, create their own custom operating system, and explore the world of free and open source creative software.  We even managed to squeeze in a bit of training on Ayr’s brand new 3D printers, firing them up for the first time with an introduction to 3D printing.

With the pilot workshops complete we’ll be building on our experience and feedback to deliver a complete training package to each community in early 2016. Bundled up, this workshops kit will l include of all the hardware, software, training and communication materials needed to promote and run a CCC workshop locally, supported by a community website released under a Creative Commons license. The CCC program will finally move from an in-house project at The Edge to a resource for the wider Queensland community.


Recycled computers as Scratch! arcade machines — Pt 5

With our arcade machine functioning, the next step was to clone this working ‘master’ machine and turn it into a bootable liveCD (USB in our case). This handy procedure is used to make your own portable operating system so you can take your customised desktop with you. In our case it would provide an OS with arcade ‘kiosk’ mode and a ‘admin’ mode. The ‘kiosk’ mode is all we want users to access with our arcade machines, so we need to set-up the system to automatically log-in as our kiosk user.

While building the CCC program I’ve tested various methods for making live systems or custom distributions (distros) of Ubuntu. A google search will come up with at least a half dozen options ranging from the ‘do it all manually from the terminal’ to ‘use this shiny point and click app’ but as with much of the open-source world, its all about diving in and testing what works on your specific system. After much trial and effort, I’ve settled on a procedure using four tools depending on the required outcome.

For custom distros (based upon an existing install):

  1. Black Lab Imager to create the image. This is a fork of remastersys, once the de-facto standard for this procedure.
  2.  ‘dd’ command in the terminal to create the USB installer.

For live systems based upon an existing install:

  1. refractasnapshot to create the image,
  2. unetbootin to create the USB installer, then
  3. dcfldd‘ to clone the USB to multiple targets.

With our USB sticks freshly minted the last step was to test them in the arcade machine systems. Making sure the computers were looking at the USB ports to boot off, I plugged a stick in an crossed my fingers … Boom — 8 bit harmony!


Recycled computers as Scratch! arcade machines — Pt 4

To recap, our hope of a simple web menu driven interface for our Scratch! arcade machine had crashed and burned. No matter what we tried we couldn’t convert the game to javascript, which was the only way we could get a stand-alone offline scratch player working. Our graphic designer came to the rescue, using another nifty little utility created by the scratch community. ScratchtoExe takes a scratch 1.4 file and turns it into a windows executable. Now we just needed to get windows running on our linux machine! This sounds daunting, but thanks to the efforts of the WINE project, lots of windows programs can be run on top on linux. So we converted our games, installed WINE, and our game worked fine as a windows .exe. The next challenge was getting access to this via a web page, things got a little tricky at this point…

The first time WINE runs, it creates some folders and files to store and keep track of settings. Running WINE as normal user is fine, but running WINE from a web server as we need to do for our menu means that the web server itself is the user. And web servers don’t usually get permission to create files and folders willy-nilly, with good reason. Our solution? Run our server as a stand alone LAMP stack from within our kiosk user account, that way the files and folders created are for that user only. I pulled down a stand-alone LAMP stack from bitnami, installed it, copied across our web content then rebooted into kiosk mode, and sure enough, there was our arcade game, in all its 8-bit glory. It looked like we had a working system, all that we needed now was to turn this system into a bootable live USB.


Recycled computers as Scratch! arcade machines — Pt 3

So we have a concept for our arcade machine interface. A web-base menu that launches a stand-alone javascript version of our games, and launches full screen video file playback. While the web capable did their web things, I started to look at the rest of the software stack. The system would have to boot off a USB, automatically log-in as a user, launch a web server, then a web browser in full screen, then load our menu. So basically we want a web kiosk with a web server serving up just our little one page menu.

Web kiosks using Linux have been done many times, two approaches are usually used. The first; a minimal OS, with customised install of window manager, desktop manager, browser and restricted user, a great example can be found here. Secondly a mainstream OS, customised using GUI control over settings like in this instructional. While I’d love to go with the former due to the streamlined nature of the process, I ended up using xubuntu as a base with a mix and match approach, using the GUI where I had too. The system had two user accounts, one for admin, the second as our ‘kiosk mode’ arcade user.

The server side of things is straight forward. Setting up an apache server in ubuntu is easy, serving local content as simple as chucking everything in a folder. Our remaining challenge of using the arcade controls as in interface looked easily solvable by using a simple key remapping program, and hiding the mouse pointer when not in use would remove any hint of a real computer lurking behind the kiosk.   Then we struck our first big issue. No matter what we tried, our Scratch! game would not function using the javascript convertor. No javascript game, meant no web-menu, meant no arcade machine. What next?


Recycled computers as Scratch! arcade machines — Pt 2

Scratch! is made for the web. It is used mainly as an online content authoring system, with easy sharing and collaboration built-in. So we’re trying to get Scratch! to do two unnatural things, run offline and run as a player only, disabling or hiding edit functionality. Step number one was to get Scratch! running offline on our chosen OS, Ubuntu 13.01. The latest version of Scratch!  is based on the Adobe AIR framework, which is where things get nasty. Adobe stopped supporting and releasing AIR for linux some time ago and getting Scratch! 2.0 running involved a number of work arounds including using 32bit packages, and messing with the gnome keyring. If this sounds like too much trouble, it was for us. After much tinkering, we ruled Scratch! 2.0 out and we rolled back to Scratch! 1.4  the most recent non-AIR release.

Scratch! 1.4 is breeze to install on any platform and on Ubuntu it is in the repository. Once Scratch! is up and running offline, the next step was enabling some kind of player mode. On launch we want Scratch! to go straight into playing a game in full screen mode, using arcade style controls without using a mouse or keyboard. Sounds straight forward? As far as I can tell, its not possible with the standard version. So what about a Scratch! player, something like flash-player? Perhaps being open-source means some talented soul(s) is working away on something so useful? Surely digging through the scratch forums will turn up a likely candidate? Bingo!  We have a (possible) working solution, just convert it to javascript and run from a browser. Admittedly we’d have to use a Scratch! 2 project, but that was no big deal, we could convert our Scratch! 1.4 game to Scratch! 2 online then The Edge’s crack web design crew could swing into action and we’d have a working concept. Stay tuned.


Recycled computers as Scratch! arcade machines — Pt 1

DIY arcade machines is something we’ve done before here at The Edge, in the past we’ve run MAME on a  Raspberry Pi to create an compact all in one solution. This time around the machines were intended to showcase games made by participants in a workshop, as well as playback a video. This rules out using MAME and Pi’s, and brings us into the world of Scratch! This series of blog posts is a (mostly) non-technical, slightly rambling explanation of getting my bit of the project up and running. While there is plenty of information around building a DIY arcade machine, we think the approach we’ve taken with Scratch! is worth documenting and putting out there for others to use and build upon. We’ll be posting an exacting how-to with instructions on building your own arcade machine when the dust has settled.

While running the Creative Community Computing (CCC) program, I’ve become The Edge’s resident hardware/linux tinkerer so I was tasked with pulling together hardware and software for the build. I started with a small desktop from our store, a Dell Optiplex 780. While definitely not a recent machine, the hardware requirement for the workshop were simple and this five-year-old computer is up to the task. The next step was to choose an Operating System (OS). The  arcade machines had to double as the workshop machines which would be used to create the Scratch! animations. With the CCC program based on open source software, starting from a creative linux based OS made sense. In this case we used Ubuntu Studio 13.01. Once the creative workshops were done, we would switch to using a USB stick for the Arcade OS. The idea being – no USB plugged in – workshop computer – USB plugged in – instant Scratch! Arcade Machine! Viola!

The workshop OS was installed in a short CCC workshop, run for a group of Korean students on a flying tour of The Edge. The machines worked a treat and were taken down to Access Arts Logan where the Scratch! game workshops were being run. The Arcade OS was not such a straight forward process. To begin with, we were trying to get scratch to do something unnatural — run as an offline game player only. Sounds straight forward, but what happens when you remove the mouse and keyboard from the equation, using only traditional stick and button arcade controls? And you want to play back videos? On a linux system? From a Live USB stick?


Re-Introducing Creative Community Computing

Well it’s been quite a wait, but with another round of SLQ computers being decommissioned and generously donated, it is almost time for the Creative Community Computing (CCC) workshops to kick off again.  CCC is all about bridging the Digital Divide. For a little background on this concept — here is a primer by Daniel Flood,  our Creative Production Manager and originator of The Edge’s CCC program.

 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination (1962), Arthur C Clarke

There has been a lot said about the Digital Divide; by learned people, from academics through American presidents over the past twenty years and it seems a little glib to recap in a very short time and space. To save the clicking through to another page and losing your attention — let alone momentum — following is a short summation of the thought process around the subject, some ranting between the facts and the foundation on which the remainder of the words planned for these blog entries can be built on.

The Digital Divide is the gap between the technological have and have not. It concerns itself with the inequity of access to computer technology and internet, the gap in knowledge that has developed with regards to computer technology and the resulting disempowerment which frames digital technology as sacred objects that should remain closed to the masses, rather than tools to be used and ultimately, broken.

Let me take a few moments to unpack the densely packed statement.

We live in the Digital Village, where (developed world) borders cease to have any real application. It is a connected space of democratic authorship, where all citizens have the right to speak and to be heard — reasserting that rhetoric and reality are often uncomfortable bed-fellows.

This Digital Village is a class based world where the merchant class serves as the socio-politic engine of momentum.

The Digital Divide has covered thousands of type-face pages around and about itself over the past ten years. With good cause; it’s a real issue, even in the light of falling technology prices and the onward march of Moore’s Law into its own irrelevance.

The disempowerment was not always prevalent with regards to computer technology.  In the 60s through the early 80s, ownership of a computer equated to a working knowledge of the technology. To use a computer, the user faced the command line and a need to have memorized a catalogue of arcane commands with which to make the machine dance like a proverbial monkey. It was not friendly or easy, but it was open and transparent.

The first commercially available Apple computer was a build it yourself kit, an irony considering Apple’s evolution into one of the leading industry exemplars of the closed computer system.

Times changed and the personal computer found itself in the formative years of becoming an industry distinct from the computer sciences. In the late 80s and through the turning century, knowledge of a computer’s workings was no longer a requisite of ownership. The command line gave way to iteratively richer Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), and the tinkering that typified the early days of the computer industry was first made complicated by proprietary screws and was later legally discouraged in the United States of America and effectively throughout the developed world.

Personal computing had become an industry, building obsolescence and dependence into its business model. Users are asked to trust the technologist’s wares and go about the business of consuming technology, maintenance became the realm of the authorized service technicians, disempowering the user’s capacity to maintain their consumer electronics and occasional prosecuting them for opening the beige box (IE. modifying the PS3 to run Linux, building Hackintosh systems etc).

This is not to suggest that people are not building and repairing their own computers. Swap meets held around Australia every weekend and the growth of discount hardware retailers are proof contrary, places where enthusiasts gather parts to construct their computers.

Enthusiast is the key word, not the wider community but a small human repository of the technical information. Building your own computer is not part of the mainstream. Repairing computer technology — as stated earlier — is the work of authorised service technicians. The construction of computer technology is painted as a complicated process, requiring a capacity for deep technical understanding and the qualification to call oneself a ‘nerd’.

Which is crap, ‘and anyone who tells you differently is selling you something’.

The repair and construction of computer technology are skills that should be made available to everyone and the Creative Community Computing program addresses this gap with underserviced communities in Queensland. The Creative Community Computing program works with recycled computer hardware and Free & Open Source Software (FOSS). It teaches rebuilding and repairing the hardware, installing software and engaging creatively with the computer. When the workshop program concludes, participants take the computer home with the knowledge of how to keep them in working order.

Past CCC workshops have been delivered in partnership with MDA, QPASTT, and the Edmund Rice Flexi Schools. We are looking forward to partnering with these groups again and reaching out to other communities for the 2013 series of workshops.  As every particpant leaves with a functioning computer we tend to run out of systems pretty quickly so we’ll be looking to source computers from outside SLQ.  If you have or know of a dozen or so computers laying around idle, please let us know!

 

 


Mobile Media Lab is GO!

After spending the best part of three months in The Edge’s basement, the time has come to release The Edge’s latest creation into the wild!

The Mobile Media Lab has been in development since late 2012 and has taken the combined brains of our Programming team and eaten most of  the output from our 3D printer, so I thought I’d put together a quick Q&A to introduce the project.

What is the MML?

Physically — its a box. A very strong, portable waterproof box that contains the essentials for a mobile multiuser media creation lab. The current MML spec is eight iPad minis, a macbook air, a custom charge/sync station and various other bits and bobs, software and hardware in a Pelican Storm IM2500 case.

Conceptually — to take a line from the official project outline;

The Mobile Media Lab (MML) project is run by The Edge, State Library of Queensland and aims to develop a regional model of community responsive content creation for young indigenous participants in Rockhampton, Queensland.

Practically —  it means that The Edge is outreaching to provide opportunity, expertise and equipment to do its part in fulfilling the State Library of Queensland’s mission.  Output from the MML will range from complete video and music production to digital art, storytelling, web publishing and more.

Hang on — isn’t that just a bunch of iPads in a road case? What makes it special?

While the hardware is essentially off the shelf – the key part of what makes the MML a ‘lab’ rather than just a charging box is the emphasis on multi user creation, robust media sharing, and expert devised workshops and  training programs. The lab will leave The Edge with content and workshops preloaded and expert assistance available.   And we spent a lot of design time getting everything into a carry-on size case. And printing things out on our 3D printers.

So why iPads? Why not a few laptops — surely a more productive experience? Or android tablets?

Running workshops for years on various creative subjects —  we have come to realise that a large part of almost any workshop can be thought of as ‘point and click’ time where the facilitator is going through menus, ticking boxes, opening and shutting windows. In short — dealing with the basics of a GUI and OS.   Part of the joy of small screens is that most of this has been stripped away by necessity and  the app and OS designers have thought long and hard about how best to do this. If you want to take a photo on a pad or phone device — you touch a picture that represents an camera – no mouse point, double click to open programme.  This is a trivial example — but a photo editing/retouching app like snapseed or a sound mangler like samplr make incredibly complex  manipulation of pictures and sound as close to intuitive as possible. To the point where I feel old just thinking about how hard it used to be to get these kinds of results!  It feels obvious that in a few generations time, having a screen that you can’t touch will be the unusual thing, so why buck the trend?   iOS over android was a fairly straight forward choice in the initial planning stages. Android couldn’t take the realtime audio requirements of the kind of apps we need to use. Finally, form factor and weight considerations means an iPad based lab can actively engage between 8 – 16 participants, with a carry on luggage size amount of kit.  While it is possible to carry 6 laptops and assorted support gear, or load a roadcase with a sound system into a van, lugging around so much gear is bad for our backs and eventually for the gear itself. This time we took a modular approach, built around ‘add-on packs’ that can be community sourced and provided, or even built as part of MML workshops or The Edge’s programming.

Who is it For?

The lab is part of a framework for engaging young indigenous people in media creation in regional Queensland.  Our initial engagement in Rockhampton will be based around working with Durumbal Community Youth Services, who have graciously offered their workers and facilities for us to start our workshops and training series.  Rockhampton Regional Council  and Creative Capricorn will help us put the lab into the community, supplying booking system, space to work and contact and links with existing creative types. Also ABC Open Capricornia is keen for their participants to use the lab for their various exciting projects.

Where is it going to be in use?

Currently the lab has been travelling between The Edge and Rockhampton, with a couple of excursions for testing to Stradbroke Island (working with the outstanding folk from SLQ Kuril Dhagan) and to the Mini Maker Faire in Adelaide.

What is the future?

By June this year we anticipate the MML will be in full use in the community, with all training and hand over complete, and the lab will be living in Rocky.  We will provide in-person training and continual development. At the end of the process The Edge will make freely available DIY plans to create a MML and in the process we will have moved on to Version II — stronger, faster, smarter, and maybe even smaller than before.  Along the way we will be working with other parts of SLQ

Over the next few weeks I’ll be going into details, exploring the design process, the parts, the build, the software, the apps, and the workshops – keep an eye on this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Good News – Music (always) Rocks!

 

Despite the doom and gloom in my last post, this decade will be unique and exciting for music creators and fans alike. But if the web is the death nell for the conventional record business, whats the upside?

Lets start with fans:

To state the obvious, music fans drove labels and artists into the 21st century through creating and participating in massive music sharing networks – or piracy if you come from the other side of the fence. This has created some amazing ways of finding, storing, sharing, buying and streaming music.  On top of this there are fan driven web labels, fan hosted tours and fan-based popularity contests.  Finding, following, collecting, obsessing over and communicating with an artist has never been easier.

For music creators, the big break-through has come in two parts.  Cheap (relatively), digital music production hardware and cheaper (or free) software has fed an enormous market of music creators and is empowering them with tools that where once the sole domain of multi-million dollar studios and recording artists.  Second,  of course, is the mighty promotional/sales/networking/learning/collaboration/ creation/funding all-thing that is the internet. Never before has the power to create so much been in the hands of so many.  We have used it for good, stupidity and evil, but there is no doubt that in our society at least,  music creation in isolation is a thing of the past. There really is no excuse anymore for musicians not to attempt understand or engage with their audience.

I’ll leave you with quote from Danny Barnes, a staunchly DIY indie artist, who can remember buying vinyl on mail order in the 70’s…..

there is more cool stuff out there than we can even keep up with. All these new configurations new riffs and new structures built upon the shapes and forms of the past. or not! perhaps the older forms rejected entirely. it’s all one big giant database and music has never been better. enjoy some today. it’s really the greatest thing we have on the physical plane. so get to jukin’

 

 

 

 


Mastering Souncrane: Astroboy fights Tsunami with soX!

Soundcrane is a project where ‘Australian musicians cover Japanese compositions to raise money for the disaster relief effort.’ I’ve just completed the mastering for this project in at The Edge’s Lab3.  Check it out and buy a track for a good cause at Bandcamp!

I don’t usually do mastering so I was on the hunt for a resampling tool to use for this project. Re-sampling is the process of up or down sampling digital audio.  The sample rate for CDs is 44,100 samples per second. In this case I want to go up 96,000 or 96k as some of the plug-ins I use sound better at higher sample rates. I also needed to get back down to 44.1k for the final output to be posted on bandcamp. Downsampling badly can make time spent in mastering tweaking subtle details wasted and is generally a bit of a black art in digital audio. Wikipedia has the details of course.

With the criteria of free, open source and cross-platform I went to to Infinite Wave Mastering’s awesome sample rate comparison site. I found soX – an audio processing toolkit that on spec beats pretty much every other tool out there.  Its a command line tool but if thats too geeky for your, you can use as a plug-in for foobar – a free audio process tool for windows.