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Snails and 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

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. During the last few months, we’ve been discussing Open Source Software (OSS) in general and audio in particular. But 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 from 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, along with libraries containing parsing executables. There’s another project cooking up an FFmpeg Cocoa GUI just for confessed CLI lightweights.

Asset management is increasingly becoming 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 (SQL) database. SQL, pronounced “see-kwull,” is an ANSI/ISO standard method to create, update and query 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 of 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 our 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 its “combination of security, performance, efficiency, ease of implementation and flexibility.” Also hiding (yuk yuk) within SourceForge are five 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 2002 but, in brief, steganography is the science of hiding information within other information. Audio watermarking is an increasingly common example of steganography.

For those of you, poor things, who simply cannot do without “Windoze,” 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.

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] video [nonlinear editing] processing.” Not many folks know about Max, but everyone I know who 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 boatloads 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!

Something that we all need to do more of is advertise and promote our services. If you don’t get the word out, then the bidness doesn’t come in. A Website, 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 and the rest are running Netscape, Microsoft or another server software. Also, if you want a database-driven site where you don’t have to handcraft 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.

Of course, if you do run your own site, then you probably also spend some serious time thinking about security. You should, anyway. Along with all of the other OSS out there, several firewalls, sniffers, spam killers and honeypots are available for a 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. Hackers who make 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 move against the hacker, spammer or malcontent. Be aware, though, that many of these tools, in the wrong hands, can be used by those self-same “Black Hats.” Take AirSnort, an example of several wireless LAN tools that 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 and not your average punter, though if you’re familiar with Unix, then 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.

This month’s column was written 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 Four Horn Concertos by Wolfie A. Mozart. For tips, books, links and an expanded version of this column,