How About That Tablet?

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Last year I announced that I would spend a good chunk of 2015 working on the creation of a freedom-respecting tablet computer. How did that go?

Well, first, unsurprisingly, I ran into the massive wall of companies-will-not-talk-to-you. I only managed to get a tiny number of PCAP vendors to even begin discussions with me, and even fewer were willing to sell me prototyping gear. I spent too much on some stuff that ultimately wouldn’t work well (too bulky/heavy) but that I’m still tinkering with anyway. However, back to where I started, I eventually got in touch with people at Chalkboard Electronics about doing custom/bulk orders. They will do very small (MoQ 100) custom board spins (for simple changes like “please use LVDS directly instead of a built-in HDMI converter”). I have tested their generally-available hardware with my Novena and it works quite well.

The software situation is overall much better than I expected. Many GNOME applications support multitouch gestures already, and there are several on-screen keyboards that work reasonably well. Auto-rotation of the display on the Novena is a pretty simple shell-script. Though getting a browser that works well might be some more effort.

The battery situation turned out to be more complex than I had imagined. There is no (that I have found) good, free-design USB battery charging + passthrough solution. Maxim proved to be pretty willing to sell an eval kit for their MAX8895 series if I want to try building a solution based on that. The Novena and PiTop both use a higher-voltage barrel-jack charger, which could work for a tablet but is not ideal. The PiTop ended up going with a “smart battery”, so there is not reusable part to try there. I have an extra Novena battery board that I hope to experiment with this year and get it to power alternate SBCs.

I also got distracted this year, not least of all by my Free Culture project which resulted in a (very) small-run print of the Big Buck Bunny Board Book, of which I gave one to my niece for Christmas.

Also making good-looking progress is LKCL’s projects at rhombus-tech. While he has some strange ideas, he seems very close to executing on the laptop design and has been quite willing to share information about his suppliers, etc.

So where next? Am I going to really build a tablet for sale? Probably not any time soon. But I’ve learned a lot, and will keep tinkering with the hardware that I have. Maybe I’ll get a battery charging solution working this year, that would be nice.

A Non-viable Professional Remix

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Last night, I went with my fiancée and her family to see Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies in concert. Near the end of their set, they launched into what I later heard called a “mashup of pop songs”: a delightful medley of everything from current pop hits, to Bohemian Rhapsody, finishing with a wild rendition of Let It Go. A performance that connected with most everyone in the audience, and was for some their favourite part of the show. By quoting from the culture around them, they created a piece that resonated deeply with the audience.

Part way through, my fiancée turned to me and said, “Stop thinking about copyright infringements.” But I wasn’t. I was thinking about how sad it is that they would never release something like that on an album.

You see, I wasn’t thinking about infringements because none were obvious. The venue where the concert took place has an up-to-date license from SOCAN, the copyright collective administering compulsory licensing for musical public performance in Canada. They could thus perform any song or derivative of a song that they wished to, because the license has already been cleared. This gives performers an avenue for free expression at their concerts without fear.

Then why might they not be able to record the piece? In Canada, there is no compulsory license for recordings of music, only for public performances. In order to record this kind of music the group would have to trace each composition they wished to honour, find the current copyright holder, and negotiate a license. A negotiation that the copyright holder is not even required to engage in. If any holder of any song cannot be found, or simply is not interested in participating, then the project dies. If they’re lucky, the songs are covered by a licensor like CMRRA, but they will have to research each individual piece to find out. If they want an International or radio release, then more research must be undertaken in each new jurisdiction, since licensing regimes are different everywhere.

Even with a major label behind them, this kind of task is quite daunting. And so, this kind of culturally-resonant art stays confined to concert performances and bootleg YouTube camera videos (which eventually get taken down, because they are infringements).

This is just one poignant example of how productive arts are often strangled by the lack of culturally-relevant works from the commons to quote, and a lack of legal structures to empower artists.

The Back Door to Copyright Reform

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Let’s say there is a proposal (like parts of TPP) to extend copyright and strangle the Public Domain for a time. This sounds bad, but let’s say it gets defeated. What are we left with? A copyright term of life + 50 years (or longer) is already strangling the progress of useful arts and culture in most of the world.

So, we lobby for a term reduction, right? Good luck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a term reduction. I’m all for many of the reforms that get proposed. I just don’t really see it happening in my lifetime. There are treaties and lobbies and too many things preventing meaningful progress in this area.

Same goes for what should be unrelated policy areas like copy protection enforcement. We can (and should!) decry expansions that criminalize legitimate security research and legitimate unlocking uses. Again, however, each victory leaves us in our existing place of defeat.

We need a back door. A way to promote art, culture, science, and innovation without climbing up the waterfall. It begins with the understanding that the length of time a work is protected for under a copyright regime is a maximum. Creators can at most any time, and for most any reason, provide the public with a license to their work under much more friendly terms than the default.

If you’re familiar with the Free Culture or Free Software or other communities, this is not news. Some creators already choose to provide the public with a license to their work. This, however, is based entirely on creators knowing about the choices available to them, understanding the advantages, and making a decision that sometimes will benefit others more than it benefits themselves.

This is where public policy can come in. Many governments already provide funding to various artistic or innovative ventures based on policy goals. If a government can be convinced of the benefits of an expanded Public Domain (say) we do not have to convince them to shorten copyright terms to achieve that goal. Much easier to implement is to use (some of) their arts funding to fund projects that will be required to (perhaps after a reasonable period of time passes, much shorter than the normal term of copyright) provide the public with a license to their work under reasonably liberal terms, and distribute without copy protection of any kind.

Instead of trying to reform the entire landscape, and instead of only hiding in our corner creating the few things we can, we carve out just a piece of policy and focus it on bettering the overall situation. Things still get much better, and with a lot less change.

Open Letter to Liberal MPs in Canada

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Congratulations on your victory at the polls. I join with many other Canadians in my excitement to see such a large change take place across the country. While I have no doubt that you will do you best to represent your riding in Parliament, I understand that once the excitement of winning is over there are so many conflicting priorities. Many promises get made during a campaign, but a real government has to deal with ever-changing realities and public opinion. Issues that seemed so important before the election pale in comparison to the mountain of work you are faced with afterwards.

During the campaign the Liberal party made a promise. A promise that this would be the last election run under First-Past-The-Post. This is a promise that we as Canadians took seriously. Many took up the cry of “strategic voting… just one last time!” Your seat is in no small part a result of that hope.

To illustrate the problem with our current electoral system, consider your own constituents. Almost half of your riding did not vote for you. Does this mean you cannot represent their interests? Maybe not. But it does mean that they will often feel that way. They voted for “the other guy”, they got you, and they feel as though their voice is no longer part of what happens in Ottawa.

It does not have to be this way. There are many ways of voting in representatives that result in a much closer match between number of seats and number of votes. These systems are not strange or new, but in fact popular and well-tested in many democracies around the world. Systems where votes no longer get “lost” and people no longer feel like there is no one representing their voice. As much as I disagree with, say, the Conservative voters in my riding, I completely believe they deserve to have a representative who agrees with their views. That’s what democracy is all about.

Friends of mine fear that with your party’s large victory, you will no longer feel the pressure of this issue. After all, there are many important issues facing Canada that may seem much more pressing. The next election is quite some time away. You may feel as though the current system got you your seat, and so it may help you again in the future. This promise from a party working to win becomes a forgotten memory. I remind you that you were elected, in no small part, on the hope of this promise. I hope that you will stand with me in working to preserve the right of all Canadians to a voice in their parliament. I hope you will not forget this promise.

Canada is watching.

My Board Book Printing Journey

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So, you’ve written a board book. People are already telling you not to call it a “board book”, call it a “picture book” and let the publishers decide what format is best for it. Not very many board books get published, so if you sell yourself that way you’re selling yourself short. But, this book was designed for the format. You selected text and images for a young age group that also likes to chew. What can you do?

In my case, I not only wanted the board book format, but I want the result to be released under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. Going with a traditional publisher would be very complicated. Both my brother and others I know have some experience in the self-publishing world. Companies like Lulu exist to help authors get their books out themselves. The print-on-demand and eBook revolutions have changed the face of publishing for many creators.

So, take my designs, upload them to a print-on-demand system and start selling books, right? Except for one thing. Board books. They don’t print board books. Printing and binding a board book just doesn’t share enough with the process for a paperback. I could do an eBook, but you can’t chew an eBook. Back where I started, I go looking for print-on-demand board books. There are hand-assembled pieces of beauty on Etsy, but the prices match.

Eventually I find Pint Size Productions, a printer in the USA that would do single board books using a digital process. The price is high, but not hand-assembled-Etsy high. They’re set up for one-offs, though, not for shipping and fulfillment of print-on-demand orders. So, I’ll need to order a larger number and handle fulfilment some other way. I write them to ask for bulk pricing. Turns out, they have presses, and will do large runs that way, for much less per book. Minimum order: 1000 units.

If you’ve never had something made, you’ve never had to deal with a minimum order. Basically, most printers and manufacturers figure it’s not worth their time to set up the equipment to make a small number of things. So, instead of (or as well as!) charging you large set-up fees, they set a Minimum Order Quantity. If I have to order at least 1000 books, I’m going to need some up-front demand, which leads me to crowdfunding.

The natural way to do crowdfunding might have been to just head to Kickstarter and be done with it, but I also had to solve shipping and fulfilment, so I found CrowdSupply. They provide optional shipping and fulfilment services to all their campaigns, feedback on your overall strategy from staff who have seen many campaigns, and possible options for continued orders and fulfilment after the campaign. So, I wrote them and got started.

1000 backers is a tall order for a typical 30-day crowdfunding campaign. But no problem, the price for the printing is low enough (and shipping is a large enough part of the cost) that I can set a bit of a margin and instead of using it to pay me, use it to pay for books I didn’t sell. If I’m aggressive, I might even be able to get as low as 500 backers needed. That’s still a lot, but much less. The price of the books will end up higher than I wanted, but what can I do?

I’m not planning on using the “print-on-demand” digital process from Pint Size any more, so maybe I should go looking again. They have been helpful, and even sent me some free samples of other books they’ve printed so that I could get a sense for their print quality, but I’ll just look around. I need a small-run printer who can do board books. Cheaper per unit would be nice, but a lower minimum-order would be excellent. Some Googling lead me to another printing company, PrintNinja, with an interesting model. Their main offices are in the USA, the support staff are in the USA, and the printing is done in China. They handle all import for you. They do a lot of things, including board books, and for very good prices. Best of all: the minimum order is only 500! That’s half!

This company also offered to send me a free sample of a board book they have printed, and the quality looks great. With this kind of improvement in the minimum order I can get the price down to something reasonable and also reduce the number of orders I need in order to succeed. The printing company will also do warehousing and fulfilment! The price is pretty comparable, though, and so I decided to stick with CrowdSupply since they’ll already have facilities for collecting the backer’s addresses and everything.

Last thing I need is an ISBN. Can’t have a real book without an ISBN! I looked around for awhile at different places that sell them before discovering that in Canada, where I live, ISBNs are free to citizens who register. So, that problem solved, I now have a low-volume printing company; warehousing, shipping, and fulfilment services; and ISBNs all lined up. Everything I need to be a little publishing house for my own book at a reasonable price.

The campaign is now under way and at 34%. You can back now to receive a copy of the result of this journey. A freely-licensed board book (with sources to be made available!) based on the iconic Big Buck Bunny short film. If we succeed I hope to go on to make a colouring book, though I feel I’ll have to reprise part of this journey again, as it seems that’s one of the few things my current choice of printing company does not offer!