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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the February 2004 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column is the third installment discussing Free & Open Source Software…

Snails & Puppy Dog’s Tails

Holy Juno readers, it’s February and that gives me a chance to talk about my love. Though my family is first in line, right up there in third place is gadgets, those geeky toys we all love to mess with. We’ve been discussing Open Source Software (OSS) in general and audio in particular and, if you’re into desktop production, you’ll get a kick out of all the other things you can do with OSS and an old computer.
Not all OSS is operating systems…Starting with practical stuff, SourceForge, currently the largest repository of open source code and applications, lists several hundred results just searching for the string “MPEG.” Though many are either in perpetual alpha or pure pie in the sky, FFmpeg is “a complete solution to record, convert and stream audio and video.” It includes a simple player, codecs, a command line tool and streaming server alone with libraries containing parsing executables. There’s another project cooking up an FFmpeg Cocoa GUI just for confessed CLI lightweights.

Asset management is increasingly an issue for media producers, so you may want to evaluate MPEG Database, “a collection of PHP scripts and classes that allow you to catalog and search your MPEG files (MP3) and their header info.” MPEG Database is intended to be used with MySQL, a popular and highly regarded open source Structured Query Language database. SQL, pronounced “see-kwull,” is an ANSI/ISO standard method for creating, updating and querying big time relational databases. Examples of relational databases are Microsoft’s SQL Server, cross–platform lightweight Filemaker Pro, IBM’s DB2 and category pioneer Oracle Corporation’s Oracle9.

For fans of that other “open” paradigm, namely open standards, there are a few SourceForge projects for implementing MPEG-7 metadata infrastructure. None of these efforts have released any results but the OpenIPMP Project, addressing MPEG-21 plumbing, currently has a 0.8 release. OpenIPMP is an “open source DRM for MPEG-4 adhering to ISO/MPEG IPMP Intellectual Property Management and Protection open standards…, ISMA (Internet Streaming Media Alliance) streaming and OMA DRM (Open Mobile Alliance Digital Rights Management) specs.” By the way, I’ll be covering the ISO/IEC’s MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 standards in a future column if I can just get past all those three and four letter acronyms!

For those of you with something to hide, there are many tools and applications that provide AES functionality…Not that AES, the other AES — the Advanced Encryption Standard. AES has been selected by Our Trustworthy Government as the official replacement for triple DES, the old school way to securely encrypt data. The National Institute of Standards & Technology adopted AES because of it’s “…combination of security, performance, efficiency, ease of implementation and flexibility.” Also hiding (yuk yuk) within SourceForge are 5 different steganography applications, in various states of completion, that conceal data within audio, typically lossy ’coded files. I wrote a bit about stego’ back in August of 2002 but, in brief, steganography is the science of hiding information within other information. Audio watermarking is an increasingly common example of steganography.

Then there’s those of you, poor things, that simply cannot do without Windoze. For you there are several open source DOS and Windows emulators along with a .NET workalike, Microsoft’s next great hope for future revenues and competitor obfuscation. Don’t forget the infamous Lindows, which serves as the heart of WalMart’s $199 PC. For those who can take or leave Windows but think they need Microsoft’s other popular offering, there’s OpenOffice/StarOffice/NeoOffice, depending on your operating system of choice. This bevy of productivity suites reads, edits and writes Office files, all without the costs associated with the original.

While I’m on the subject of low cost substitutes for spendy mainstream ’ware, I must mention The Gimp and it’s motion image offspring, CinePaint, the former Film Gimp. While The Gimp provides 90% of Photoshop’s functionality in a nice, no–cost download, CinePaint has provided on–screen retouching service for the likes of Harry Potter and Scooby Doo. Check out OpenOSX for an inexpensive, one–click installer package of The Gimp. As to an easy CinePaint install, it currently requires X11 for all platforms but the developers are at work on an native Aqua version.
Fans of Max, Cycling ’74’s geeky, object oriented signal processing framework, will appreciate GStreamer, a set of building blocks for the “…construction of graphs of media-handling components, ranging from simple MP3 playback to complex audio (mixing) and video (nonlinear editing) processing.” Not may folks know about Max but everyone I know that has a TiVo or other PVR says it’s changed their life. So, why not check out the well over a dozen hacks and workalike variations that are floating around the Open Source community? For boat loads of TiVo fun, check out Raffi Krikorian’s TiVo Hacks from O’Reilly. Speaking of transformative tech, you may have heard of several fellows who’ve cobbled together low cost Segway™ clones, without the safeguards…wear a helmet!

As I briefly mentioned two months ago, open source isn’t just for desktop computers. Increasingly, mainstream commercial commodities are using Linux to keep maintenance and licensing costs down while providing a wider choice of options. On the other hand, you can just as easily hijack a product for your own ends… You can also run OSS on PDA/handhelds such as Sharp’s Zaurus or PlayStations and STBs (set–top boxes). Costing only a bit more than $50k, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign assembled a supercomputer cluster from a bunch of Sony PlayStation 2s. According to the NCSA, “the 70 PlayStation® 2 game consoles that NCSA researchers have networked together (via ethernet) reached a performance benchmark recently, achieving 1 GF (Gigaflops or floating point operations per second) …” No great shakes by modern standards, but not too shabby for a pile o’ game consoles.
Something we all need to do more of is advertise and promote our services. If you don’t get the word out, the bi’ness doesn’t come in. A web site, that essential “silent salesman,” is pretty simple to brew up and the overwhelming choice for serving it is the open source donation from the Apache Software Foundation. For every dozen web servers out there, eight are running Apache while the rest are running Netscape, Microsoft or other server software. Also, if you want a database-driven site where you don’t have to hand craft each and every page, then the potent, open source combination of Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl/PHP/Python for scripting makes it all happen in a powerful, low cost package.

While on the PHP bandwagon, a ‘blog or weblog is a great way for busy indy engineers to keep clients and prospects up to date on your activities. Blogs are simple web pages containing impromptu writings, kind of like a diary. The most popular blogs are extemporaneous, updated daily and are written in an engaging, informal style. For blogging tools, check out b2, GeekLog, EasyMoblog, LiveJournal, Pivot, SnipSnap and Wordsmith. Your site hosting provider can help you with specifics.

Of course, if you do run your own site, you probably also spend some serious time thinking about security. You should, anyway, if you don’t now. Along with all the other OSS out there, several firewalls, sniffers, spam killers and honeypots are available for free download. Firewalls inspect network traffic and impose predefined rules on what traffic is allowed to pass in or out. Think of it as parental controls for your network except, in this case, the parent is the sysadmin or system administrator. As the IPCop team says, “The bad packets stop here!”

Honeypots are lures; virtual flypaper for hackers. A hacker that makes it past a firewall may find themselves exploring what appears to be a legitimate server or private network, searching for vulnerabilities. All the while, their intrusion has been anticipated and their activities in this mock environment are monitored and logged in an effort to glean information on their identity and modus operandi. This may, in turn, help a sysadmin to move against the hacker, spammer or malcontent. Be aware, though, that many of these same tools, in the wrong hands, can also be used by those self same “Black Hats.” Take AirSnort, an example of several wireless LAN tools which crack encryption keys on WEP–protected 802.11b networks. As I mentioned back in July ’02, 802.11b networks are none too secure and administrators should be aware of these chinks in their armor.

As I’ve mentioned before, OSS is, by and large, for advanced computer users, not your average punter though, if you’re familiar with Unix, you’re probably ahead of the game. I’ve also said before that, unless you really enjoy screwing around with software at the most basic level, then OSS probably isn’t for you. If, however, you are growing disenchanted with Microsoft but still enjoy the thrill of mastery over an arcane magic, then take heart. There is an alternative and you may just find an affinity with what open source evangelist Tim O’Reilly calls open source’s “architecture of participation.” It may “open” up a whole new world for you.

Bio

OMas isn’t paid enough to compile an application before he can even evaluate it. He does, however, enjoy noodling with more highly evolved open source end products. This month’s column was written while under the influence of Amnon Wolman’s Dangerous Bend on the c74 label and PentaTone Classics’ hybrid multichannel SACD reissue of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields’ 1971 performance of The 4 Horn Concertos by Wolfie A. Mozart.