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The MakeHuman Marathon!

Date/Time Permalink: 02/02/08 12:36:19 pm
Category: Reviews

Since I discovered MakeHuman I've become The Blogger Who Cannot Stop Drawing. This is always a sign that I've found a valuable graphics tool, when I can't stop playing with it. Here's the latest surviving pieces, as always with MakeHuman models which are then edited in other programs:

jumping boy

very confusing vector drawing

very sexy sitting female

And take a close look at that last one - I covered her up enough to be decent. So it should squeak by with a PG rating and not violate my rule of not posting NSFW images. Am I right? Tell me I'm right, just this once?

On a side note, I have a horror story about trying to get it from source. Begin horror story:

I did have continued challenges with getting the rest of the software installed. Bottom line, I needed Aqsis so I could do real renders instead of screenshots. Now, the Windows executable installer for Aqsis comes in around a mere, tiny 6 MB. But I tried to install Aqsis natively for Linux, since I had MakeHuman compiled natively already.

Boy, was I in for some trouble! Aqsis has a dozen little dependencies, one of them being an iron-clad dependence on this thing called "Boost", which is supposedly a C++ library. Don't believe this for a minute! Boost is a complete freaking operating system that tries to rewrite, like, everything in the entire world. I got the source for Boost and started compiling.

Four hours went by, on an AMD Duron with a half-Gig of RAM. It still wasn't done compiling the library!

Meanwhile, I watched in growing horror as nearly Two Gigabytes of disk space filled up. You know, when I compile a library, I don't expect to have to dedicate an extra hard drive partition to it. I've gotten Linux From Scratch up and running with fewer resources. I kept running du in the console every minute close to the end, and had my finger hovering over Ctrl-C to kill the job, which would have undoubtedly trashed my entire system, but it ended just in time.

Fat good it did. I then turned to building Aqsis, which also requires it's own special build system called SCONS, whose entire purpose in life is to aggravate you by not using Make like every other FOSS program in the world does. Finally, finally, I got Aqsis installed and running, where it died screaming upon merely being invoked. Since I had installed about 2 Gigs worth of software from source, I now had to uninstall it all manually.

End horror story

So you understand, I'm being a little hard on the Linux native port because it wasted upwards of an entire day. My advice to you is to get the Windows executable of Aqsis and run it from Wine. Wine and Aqsis love each other. You will be done and happily on your way in five minutes. As for the team porting it to Linux, maybe we can just call it a Wine program and be done with it, or else try to do it without reinventing the compiler? Or get it all into binary packages, for RPM and DEB goodness?

Anyway, all's well that ended well. MakeHuman continues to be a powerful tool in my growing graphics toolbox.

My previous reviews of MakeHuman here and here. And another shout-out to Eric's Binary World, whose nifty blog turned me on to this program!

¶ UPDATE: Check out the comments, where Aqsis project manager Paul Gregory himself arrives with a flashlight to lead us out of the darkness. RPM packages for Aqsis are here - if I'd only thought to look there!

Update the Second: Looks like Linux Torvalds doesn't like Boost and C++, either. Until he let loose with this rant, I was wondering if I was too hard on Boost. Guess not.

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MakeHuman - half a thought left over from yesterday's post

Date/Time Permalink: 01/28/08 06:03:24 pm
Category: Reviews

This time I tried exporting a model from MakeHuman to Blender, and did a full number on it. So, for those of you wondering what a troll looks like, here it is:

A stunning portrait of Mr. Troll

Note that it's not very polished. That's not the point. The point is that I ran this up from scratch with less than three hours work. MakeHuman and Blender make a heck of a powerful combination.

Because it is still beta, I figure it makes a better non-human maker, since I just tried exporting a lovely female only to have her come out as a gray-skinned waxy corpse with magic-marker Groucho Marks eyebrows. There's some issues to work out. For actual humans, I'm sticking to screenshots for the time being.

While browsing the source, I discovered modules for clothes and teeth, which suggests facial expressions. When these are developed, it will be a cause for celebration.

Let me suggest something completely crazy: what about a command-line mode? Since the GUI interface is really just setting numerical values for the character (there's even numbers under each setting in the panels), and there's a console as well, obviously it should be possible to simply call it from the command line with a bunch of switches and numbers. You could print out a cheat sheet with the parameters in a chart with pictures.

This would cut a half-hour session down to seconds, once you knew what you wanted. Especially with a library of saved poses and characters. And if vector graphics can be expressed as XML data and ImageMagick can be manipulated entirely from the command line, there's nothing to stop you from making the program do this:

"makehuman -s F -a 32 -w 120 -h 67 -c 'MySavedTweaks.txt' -p 'Yoga'"

...and out pops a female 32-year-old weighing 120 pounds and standing 5' 6" with my custom tweaks for eyes and nose and positioned in the yoga pose, ready as a mesh for Blender import. Ding!

Yes, I know, darn that stubborn old-school grouch who wants everything in the world to be a command line. But that's all the program is anyway, is a command line with a GUI glued on the front.

Does anybody else think this is a good idea?

(My previous review of MakeHuman.)

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MakeHuman - Open Source Human Modeler

Date/Time Permalink: 01/27/08 12:04:29 pm
Category: Reviews

Allow me to introduce the software that will change graphics on the Linux desktop forever. The Linux graphics toolkit has been missing one crucial tool: a way to quickly render human models, similar to the commercial, proprietary Poser. Well, we've got that now.

MakeHuman is this fantastic work of software magic. I ran into it over on Eric's Binary World. So that's a big one that Eric scooped me on, and he's reviewed and commented on it as well.

Now, Eric, if you visited that link, is happy to render naked bald women over there. That's "to each his own" - I kinda got my fill of those after Lieutenant Ilia in the first Star Trek movie. Now, me, when I sit down with a human model renderer, the first thing I think of is drawing an alien freak:

He's drawn really, really funny.

Can any of you witty commenters come up with a caption for this guy? All I can think of when I look at him is to base a new religion on him that would be a sequel to Scientology.

[EDIT] Three years later, I ended up using him as a wall portrait in this strip of Doomed to Obscurity. In a completely original fictional religion I made up called "Micca". Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Anyway, this software is alpha. Do not expect miracles! I had a devil of a time getting it running. First I grabbed the source tarball and gave it a compile on my Slackware 11.0 box, but it (all three pieces of it) depends on Aqsis, which won't compile on my system because I'm missing a bunch of obscure little libraries that I've never heard of, and I'll have to Google and scour the Earth for them.

Next, I attempted to run it on the dreaded Windows XP machine. It installed alright (what doesn't install on Windows? It's a garbage can, it'll eat anything!), but it was not in running condition. Evidently the Windows system I inherited has no tolerance for OpenGL whatsoever. It froze like a brick.

Next, I tried the Windows executable on both Slackware and Zenwalk using Wine, and yeah, verily, it didst worketh!!! About ten minutes after getting it running, my memories of the struggle to get to this point melted away. This! Software! ROCKS!!

Now, I still can't get the renderer working, without Aqsis. Also, I can export Collada .dae format from MakeHuman, but my Blender barfs on that format. I can export Wavefront .obj format from MakeHuman and my Blender opened that, but even that has drawbacks, as Eric points out.

She's flying high on goofballs.

So instead, the models I'm showing you here are simply taken from screenshots of the MakeHuman environment. You can change the background to any convenient wallpaper you have ready, and then the skin renders fine right there, so what's the difference? Snap them and Gimp some clothes and hair on and wedge them into whatever scene you want. I expect they'll fix more of these issues by the time they get to final release. And the next time I paste a wig on a model, I'll do a better job.

Be glad you cant see this old fat guy wearing boxer shorts.

In the case of the big bald guy ("Boxer Joe") I zoomed him in to full size, then took four window shots from Gimp, scrolling the model up each time, resulting in four pieces which I could then paste back together and post-process. These examples are the beginning of my experimentation - I'm just letting everybody know so you aren't all "How do I get MakeHuman to do that?", these are mostly the result of post-processing outside of MakeHuman.

I have found graphics Nirvana! By the way, the MakeHuman team is asking for donations, so golly, it sure would be nice if a bunch of people responded to all this blog love to go shower them in dollars - perhaps from the upcoming tax refund windfall - to support them while they get these last few kinks ironed out. Then their first official release would be a real blow-out, and then the greedy, freedom-oppressing, proprietary-software corporate swine everywhere would just sit on the floor and bawl like babies, because there'd be nothing left to monopolize.

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A Bashful Glimpse at Solaris Indiana Developer Preview Edition

Date/Time Permalink: 01/20/08 12:41:32 pm
Category: Reviews

There's no getting around it - I'm going to have to go to a psychiatrist some day with my unhealthy Sun Microsystems obsession.


"Doc", I would say, "Every time I see an Open Solaris distro, I have these sky-high expectations which are constantly disappointed by the reality. Yet my optimism for the next Sun release never falters."

"I see.", the psychiatrist would say, "What does Sun Microsystems symbolize to you?"

"Well, see, they used to be this big, hostile proprietary tech company, but lately they've been open-sourcing their operating system and giving us Open Office and they even GPL'ed Java. And I always think that they're this close to being as cool a company as, say, Red Hat or Google. If they really went all the way with Solaris distros, they'd be just like Linux, only with clout and money."

"Ah", the psychiatrist would say, "So then you, as the rebellious youngster with the new software liberty philosophy, look to this member of the old guard who represents the establishment you have fought; now you hope that they will change sides just so it would validate your rebel beliefs?"

"Why yes! That does sound like the source of my fixation."

"Mmm-hmm," the psychiatrist would nod to his conclusion, "Passive-aggressive Oedipus complex. When it comes down to it, you don't really want to kill the father figure. How much easier it would be if your rival simply gave up and let you have what you wanted?"

"Wow!", I'd wow, "You're pretty good at psyching me out, considering that you're a figment of my imagination I cooked up for a blog post!"

And the psychiatrist laughs and says, "You think that's something! Wait until you see what I'll be writing about you in my blog!"

CAMERA PANS upward to starry sky, as Rod Serling does his concluding voice-over...

"Penguin Pete, who blogged a dream, only to find that in fact he was the dream being blogged. Penguin Pete, whose RSS feed is bookmarked only in... the Twilight Zone!"


So, to get to the "review" part, which won't be very long: Introducing OpenSolaris Indiana! Now, I stress... this is important... wait, don't jump ahead, read this part!!!... I stress that I'm not criticizing this release. It is not even an alpha release; it's a "developer's preview". It isn't even born yet, we're just getting a picture through the womb on ultrasound. I love Open Solaris. If I loved it any more, it would have to file a restraining order against me.

Note that there's no screenshots with this "review". Always a sign of bad news to come. But as they say, "Try it!" so I'm doin' dat.

Anyway, on my four computers it failed to boot on three of them and on the fourth could only boot to a text console. The GRUB loader for the live CD gives three options for regular desktop boot, regular desktop without ACPI, and text console, and on the three computers where it failed to boot, it failed on all three options.

On the Pentium Pro 450MHz with 320 RAM, it stopped quickly with "Error 28: selected item cannot fit into memory" right after a line that said "module /boot/x86.microroot". On the Intel Celeron 433MHz with 512 RAM (this is the Windows XP/ FreeBSD dual-booter) it immediately jumped into an infinite loop printing "WARNING: init(1m) exited on fatal signal 9: restarting automatically" over and over. It failed on the other box with likewise problems which I forgot to document.

The machine where it booted successfully is an AMD Duron 1000MHz with 255 RAM. The graphical option simply hauls off and tries to start, resulting in a blank screen, dead as a doornail. In getting the console boot, I was at last able to explore.

OpenSolaris Indiana's guts look a lot like a GNU system. the shell is Bash, it has vi and less and ls and a complete info system and days worth of entertaining man-page reading. It has no Emacs, but whenever I mention that as a minus I get whipped for being an Emacs bigot. So I didn't mention it.

Were I to explore it and stick with it, there's at least a possibility that I could get the X system tweaked to run on my very basic video hardware - ATI Rage 128 AGP card and HP Pavilion monitor. I just mention the ancient hardware so you know I'm not bashing a distro for not supporting some laser-guided cutting edge stuff. I certainly did not find /etc/X11/xorg.conf which I could have edited in vi and given a shot with 'startx', which is how I usually solve display problems on Linux distros. And learning the Solaris equivalent is better done from a working desktop with web access, so I'll put that in my 'to-do' queue.

Exploring the file system from the command line, I noted the presence of a full Gnome install, Gimp, and Firefox. The screenshots on the Indiana site look tasty.

I've explored OpenSolaris systems before and had similar issues. I stamp my foot and whine. I wait a while and try one again. And it looks like I should just get to be comfortable with the idea that I'm not going to get my pony, not for a while. The thing I can't seem to remember is that Linux took 15 years to get where it is now, BSD took 30 years, and with Open Solaris being just over 2 years old, it is not going to just catch right up with the other Unix family members.

But, do you want some hope? As the Wiki turns, no less than Ian Murdock has just been hired by Sun to head the Indiana project. Well, hey, if Open Solaris wasn't going anywhere before, it damn sure is going to start going places now.

I Can HAZ Sun COOLNESS Plz? With lotsa Java in it? Sometime soon?

metal sig without much mustard

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Gimp 2.4 - A Proper Review

Date/Time Permalink: 10/26/07 04:05:23 pm
Category: Reviews

Now that I've gotten all the fussing about the wrong-headed design changes last time, it's time to talk about the good news: the new features. There is no merely discussing this as "an upgrade". This is basically a reinvention of the Gimp as we knew it. Keep your hat on, as there is just too much to talk about to proceed through in any kind of orderly fashion.

Also see Gimp release notes and Red Hat Magazine's write-up. Click the shots for full-size images. [happy now, Eric? q;o)]

The New Look - Lip-smackingly tasty. The new icon set plus the new widget integration makes Gimp look 100% better than it did before. I can't speak for other systems, but on Linux with KDE it does indeed adopt the desktop style.

brushes screenshot

Brushes - The first feature I noticed with the brush was that I could easily draw a straight line. The lines at the top were not done with holding down the shift key; instead it seems to detect when you're trying to go straight (hint: drag slowly) and keeps it that way. But only horizontally and vertically.

The brushes are indeed scalable, and in addition to pressure sensitivity, have "jitter" as well, making it so you can drag straight while applying a scattered trail. Altogether, the brush is much better and the functions are combined well in one dialog. The same attributes apply to erasers, pencils, etc.

selections screenshot

Selections - The selection dialogs are now movable. This is handy when you want to draw a circle and just miss the guide. After laying the selection down, you can move it with the handles in the corners. Unfortunately this only works with the square and circle, but you can still get other shapes by making a path and doing path-to-selection. You can also round the corners; even after you've made the selection. To compact a couple of points, the crop tool works in similar fashion.

Foreground Select - This brand new tool could use a tutorial or two all by itself. But briefly, you first use the tool like the lasso, drawing around the object. Then it will turn everything not in the selection blue (or whatever color you pick). Then you use paintbrushes to draw in the foreground, and cut away background. Each time you do so, the program will update the selection.

I saw the Google video and that's a nice, clean image of scissors they're using, but let's test a real-world object that isn't quite so set up so you could just as easily do it with one click of the magic-wand selector. How about the Model-A Ford from my old (now outdated) masking tutorial?

foreground selector screenshot

Something I've learned the hard way already is that you do not click on another tool while using the foreground selector or you lose your selection. Also, you may think you have the whole foreground painted in, until you hit enter and discover little pockmark holes in the selection. And so on.

That being said, it isn't all that different from the usual masking techniques out there; it just combines several steps and tools into one tool. I'd still want to use color channels and intelligent scissors along with this selector, either before or after. Still I am raving happy about this feature. Masking is a huge pain in the patootie, and any new tools I can use to tackle it are a winner in my book.

aligning screenshot

Aligning - The old "align visible layers" entry at the bottom of the layers menu has been turned into its own tool in the toolbox, and been re-thought. You will be clicking furiously here and doing nothing until you follow the rules: (1) The selection must be floating. (2) The dialog from the tool must be open. (3) after you get the tool, you must click inside the selection you want to move. Redundantly, since you can only have one floating selection at a time. (4) No, you cannot use the arrow keys like with the move tool. You have to click the little arrow icons in the dialog.

color picker screenshot

Color picker - The dropper tool in the color dialog can now pick any color from your desktop, not just from a Gimp window. For instance, this screenshot shows I have grabbed the roof color from KDE's "home" icon. You no longer have to open a whole new tool just for this and then copy and paste the hex number!

color picker screenshot

Text along path - The text dialog has a new function. To do this, you have to draw a path first, then put in text, then click text along path. This gave me an outline path which I then had to fill with the paint bucket. I'm dead sure that I'm not doing or telling this right; I'm going to have to RTFM on this one. But once again, as I always say with curved text, this is a job for vector editing and not raster editing. Nice though it is, I'd still rather do intricate text manipulation in Inkscape, then export it as a transparent PNG into Gimp for the other stuff.

color picker screenshot

Map Object - This isn't a new feature, but I pointed out the short-comings of this dialog once upon a post. Specifically, the rotation movements were goofed up. Well, I'm happy to say that they have now fixed it. It works perfectly exactly as you would expect, and furthermore I've noticed better performance, so it runs smoother now.

As you can see from the links, there's tons more new features all over the place. It really does show that they rebuilt many parts of the Gimp from scratch. There's so much more new stuff going on, that this is the landmark release in Gimp's history. The new features are a fantastic improvement, and I'll of course be getting some use out of most of them.

An End Note

In my previous coverage, where I took up a whole post to waaahh about the interface re-build, I had comments absolutely aghast at my audacity. One commenter was quoting Yoda, "You must unlearn what you have learned." Yoda, for Odin's sake!!!

Well, Mr. Tunnel Vision, you have given an Academy-award-winning performance in missing the point. To put it in Yoda terms:

Not important what was changed. Important is WHY was changed. If change for making better Gimp, change good will be. If change for making Gimp more like Photoshop, only bad can come.

There, is that simple enough for you? The Gimp development team is tiny. Their resources are limited. Making Gimp more powerful is a worthy use of those resources. Dumbing Gimp down to make it more Photoshoppy just because some wimp whined that it's too hard to learn is a huge - dare I say - a TRAGIC waste of talent, time, and resources.

Had Gimp the money and patents of Adobe, and Adobe nothing but a GPL and the tiny band of developers Gimp has, Gimp would be held up as the shining pinnacle of achievement that Photoshop could never match.

See, look: Gimp puts "script-fu" at the bottom of its filter menu and everybody has a cow. Blub-boo-hoo-hoo! Too hard to understand! But Adobe puts "digimarc" at the bottom of Photoshop's filters menu in CS3? Oh, that's honky-dory!

Because, see, Photoshop is proprietary software which means it comes from a culture that doesn't share, and "Digimarc" is a proprietary technology which has to do with Not Sharing, making your image digitally watermarked. Open Source is based on Sharing, so instead, our foreign concept is "script-fu", which is a language designed to write Gimp plug-ins with and share with the world. If Adobe had script-fu, it would be patented and trademarked and they'd make little teddy bears with karate robes with "script-fu" blazed on them and hand them out at trade shows, and everybody would love them for it and cry if it was taken away.

Do any of you people who complained about "script-fu" being there ever just step back and look at yourselves? To see how petty, how pathetic, how small that is? So there's a menu category you don't understand. Don't use it. So there were two color entries, one for the main and one for layers. Can you find it in your heart to carry on with the grim agony of your dark and cold life anyway?

Hey, I love you all! Even the trolls! But I'm still going to point out that it's easy and fun to sit on your fat ass and complain. Here, watch, I'll do it:

"The first computer I learned was a Commodore VIC20. I hereby condemn all technology that came afterwards because it isn't exactly like the computer I accidentally saw first. Bah to 3D graphics! Foo on all this WWW stuff! It's new, so it's too hard to learn! And how is Joe Sixpack supposed to deal with knowing what a 'font' is? Text should JUST WORK! Now, I demand everybody rushes out and rebuilds all computers to be nothing but a BASIC interpreter that hooks up to a TV set, and you have to give it to me for free and right now."

Is that how it goes? Did I do it right?

The vast majority of people just aren't wired up in their heads to understand this point, but oh well. The truth is there and it's never going away. Rest assured, I still love people, flaws and all.

Update: 11/07/07 - So now Adobe announces a major overhaul of Photoshop. "We must make Photoshop dramatically more configurable..." they say. Oh, you mean more like the Gimp? You know, like Phototrolls are always complaining about the lack of a standard interface across tools in Gimp and GTK.

Abandoning technology and joining the Amish never looked so good.

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Ahhh! What did they do to my Gimp?

Date/Time Permalink: 10/24/07 02:54:35 pm
Category: Reviews

I've just installed Mandriva One 2008 on my kid's computer. Ordinarily, I'd be reviewing that first. But the first thing I do with a distro review is pop open Gimp to take screenshots. And Mandriva's using the release candidate Gimp 2.4. And I opened it and with a tortured shriek that sent birds flying from every tree on the block, uttered the line which makes the title of this post.

Gimp screenshot 1

I have good news and bad news: the good news is that a ton of new features have been added. The bad news is, the UI has been entirely re-designed. Have you ever used the Gimp before, read a Gimp tutorial online, been using it since the 1.0 days? Then you will be lost. I repeat, you will be lost. You might as well go pick a new graphics tool to learn as the Gimp. For instance, where were drop shadows? Script-Fu->Shadow->Drop Shadow? No, as the above screenshot shows, it's now in Filters->Light and Shadow->Drop Shadows. And the old light menu now has shadow stuff dumped in on top of it. And there simply is no script-fu menu any more... presumably, there won't be a Python-fu menu any more either.

And they've added a Red Eye Tool like Photoshop's, even though it makes no logic because adjusting color levels does the same thing, but requires knowledge. And they've put in a "heal" tool which basically does just what paint-with-image-region used to do, but required knowledge. And you have brush attributes like Photoshop's, because using an image pipe requires knowledge.

This is bad news, because Photoshop... Hold on, wait a minute, let me show you something...

The only Photoshop screen shot you'll ever see on Penguin Petes!

Remember when I got the spare box with Windows XP on it a while back? Well, it has Photoshop PS3 on it. So here's a screenshot (taken with the Gimp!!!) of me running it with my frozen hockey puck logo open to show that yes, Phototrolls, I've used both so I know what I'm talking about.

This re-design of Gimp at the behest of the flaming troll brigade is bad news, because Photoshop compared to Gimp sucks. It sucks the road tar off the Highway to Hell, thanks for asking. And we're peeper-deep in flaming Phototrolls, who are the sole influence keeping people paying $800 for a simple, basic thing like editing pictures with a program that started out as freeware.

And the Phototrolls have carried their flamewar to the ends of space and time. It's permeated the depths of Usenet. It's on the most obscure channel of IRC. It's translated into Chinese, Romanian, and Hindu. It's scrawled as graffiti in the subways. You can't take your laptop to the middle of the Sahara desert and open Gimp without three Phototrolls springing from the sand like B-movie mummies who start whinging about Photoshop at you.

So the Gimp team is crushed and defeated, and are beating a retreat. Unless I haven't found the replacements yet, I could swear that actual features have been removed, simply because they aren't in Photoshop. But OK, they have to do something to get the bullies off their backs, while they know we FOSSers will forgive them in the end.

So you know the drill. Pretend I bitched and fussed about turning Gimp into "I-Can't-Believe-Its-Not-Photoshop!" for another six paragraphs, linking yet again to my antique "Stealth Bombers are more difficult to operate than tricycles BECAUSE THEY CAN FLY" rant, pointing out that Gimpshop is there already, and then ending with some caddywumpus line like, "Welcome to the new political correctness - lobotomy? - good, line on the left, one scalpel each."

Of course I'm miffed! I'm me, aren't I? I'll just save it for the next outrage, when Richard Stallman announces that the next Emacs will be based on MS Notepad, Linus Torvalds rewrites the kernel as an NT server, and the Bush administration outlaws every language but Visual *Sick.

Well, that's the bad news. And Gimp is still the only game in town for FOSS raster editing, so I'm going to have to do something very un-politically-correct, very un-Phototrollish, and make the best of what I have. And there's a metric ton of good features which have been added to the Gimp, if you can only Easter-egg-hunt them down. I'll be covering the good news next time.

Because that's what I do when a release is marvelous and rotten - I just write two reviews!

Update: Minutes after posting, the release of Gimp 2.4 breaks on Slashdot. And what do the comments do? Flame, flame, flame, nobody tries it, nobody uses it, just endless flames...

Thanks, Gimp team! You ruined a perfectly good program to try to make people happy who refuse to be happy no matter what you do.

Son of an Update: Just to show that all is not mudslinging in online Gimp discussion, OS-News has a much more clear-headed audience. The discussion here is more realistic, focusing on the core issues with Gimp: tons of users, hardly any developers, no funding. In a nutshell.

I'd like to point out, I've never before been critical of the Gimp. My issues this time are that rebuilding the interface to try to please a bunch of - it will get into the Webster's dictionary if I have any say in it - Phototrolls is a huge waste of the few resources they have. It is the classic case of bike-shed-painting.

And yes, I *will* get the "good news" side of Gimp 2.4 up - I'm sweating it out in the background. Trouble is, I keep getting derailed because I only have 2.4 on that new Mandriva, and I'm still getting everything on that box set up.

UPDATE: If you didn't like my protesting at the rebuilding of Gimp in Photoshop's image, don't miss an opportunity to get even more pissed off when Adobe came around a while later and said they have to re-think Photoshop's interface. 'Cuz it sucks!

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Xara Xtreme - a Test Drive

Date/Time Permalink: 08/04/07 10:57:54 am
Category: Reviews

Xara Xtreme is a graphics drawing application which has been available on the Linux desktop for about a year now. But I just now got around to trying it. For the obvious reason, and I'm sure many of you familiar with graphics on Linux would concur, that I didn't think yet another vector graphics editor was anything to jump out of my chair for. "Ho hum", I sighed, "we have Inkscape, Sodipodi, Karbon14, OpenOffice Draw, Scribus, and Skencil, to name a few. What can they possibly show me with a vector path that I haven't seen already?"

Well, I wish those words were now printed on chocolate, because I'm eating them. Xara Xtreme is mind-blowingly good. Not to say that it's perfect - I have a few quibbles, but fer Chrissake this is a 0.7 alpha release we're talking here. Let's just deal with the short-comings upfront. At this point:

Saving to SVG format is not possible yet; you can save in their format or - my favorite choice anyway - export an image to a transparent PNG or other image formats. The free port does not include the Xara Photo Editor yet, in case you were drooling over it in the video demo they have on the site; so for red-eye correction and such, you'll still have to rely on Google's Picasa or Gimp. Live Effects haven't been ported yet. Small bits and pieces are still coming through the pipeline. But the program already has much of the functionality of the original Windows version. Finally, the UI is a *leeetle* bit less intuitive than most of us are used to on Linux, compared to Inkscape (which has spoiled us rotten that way), but who am I to stone casts?

Does it do everything that Inkscape can? Almost yes, albeit some of it in different ways that take some investigating; notably missing is the whole tiled clones dialog and the calligraphy tool, not to mention the special Inkscape plug-ins. However, as far as features go, Xara Xtreme usually meets other vector graphics editors on Linux and in some cases smokes them off the road.

screen shot 1

How many vector editors have you seen with their own built-in noise generator? You want clouds? Draw a rectangle, pick the paint-bucket fill tool, pick blue and white colors, select "fractal clouds" for the fill gradient. Done.

screen shot 2

Enveloped vector objects! We finally have them on the Linux desktop! Shape and warp any object, even text, using the dragable box or the pre-set shapes. No more having to manually edit the paths or export it to Gimp to use the perspective tool.

screen shot 3

Would you like a bevel to go with your shaped text? Use the bevel tool. Click. Drag. Pick from a dozens styles of bevel, each tunable with the little widgets.

screen shot 4

Here's a little stunt I discovered already which I thought was pretty cool. Get the "line gallery" open, set the defaults to a shape you like, a wide line pt. width, and join and cap. It will pop up a dialog asking if you want to set these as default attributes if you have no object selected. Now use the freehand pencil to draw lines. It will keep the same attributes automatically. Even if you draw really shaky it will still smooth out to a couple of curves.

screen cartoon example

screen shot 5

Lastly, you've seen gradients before, but how about a feathered-edge gradient? It's easy with the feather tool. Just move the slider.

Oh, yes, one more thing. Xara Xtreme is also the fastest vector editor I've ever used.

There's much more to tell about - heck this was all I discovered in a few hours. But let me make one thing perfectly clear: do not delete your Inkscape! There's still plenty yet that Xara Xtreme can't do and Inkscape can, and features that are downright missing from the pipeline (remember that fractal plug-in I showed you a couple tutorials back?). In fact, I'd say that I've never seen it cut so close between two applications before - each of them have reasons to keep them as essential tools. To get the best of both worlds in the same drawing, I'll have to draw in one, export it as a PNG, POTrace it in the other, edit it, export it back...

Merge them! Merging the two projects together would be interesting. Or at least getting SVG going in Xara Xtreme would even be useful.

But I'm glad I came anyway, because Xara Xtreme is hella sweet.

Before you all ask: It has a binary auto-installer, which will put it in the menu for both Gnome and KDE. For users not living in the Age-Of-Only-Two-Desktops, the executable answers to "xaralx" and now you can drop it into whatever menu on whatever WM you deal with. The documentation installs to /usr/share/xaralx/ and the start page for the HTML manual should be "file:///usr/share/xaralx/doc/en/xaralx.htm". Have fun with your new toy, playful penguins!

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Damn Small Linux 3.0.1 - a damn simple review

Date/Time Permalink: 11/30/06 01:18:07 am
Category: Reviews

Once upon a time in the kingdom of Tux, there ruled a distro fairer and mightier than them all. This distro was Debian, and it's power was great.

And Debian lived long and was fruitful, and begat many offspring. Because Debian was endowed so mightily, the fruit of Debian's loins were as diverse as all of Linux itself. So came Knoppix, and Ubuntu, and grml, and Damn Small Linux. And none of them looked the least like the other, each to it's own strengths and weaknesses, beauty marks and blemishes. Nay, verily, it could be sung again by many a bard in the purplest prose, but it be time to quit dinking around and write the review already.

Damn Small Linux screen shot

Damn Small Linux is currently in a development release, 3.1 Release Candidate 4, so this review might be a version back, but I'm specifically choosing this to go on the kid's box as an installed system (!) so I picked the last stable one. Also, my needs here are simple; I don't have to fuss with running it embedded inside Windows or on a laptop with a USB thumb-drive or anything. A plain old desktop PC drive is all we're concerned with. And I'm aiming more at a Debian starter-kit than Damn Small for itself - we'll see how that goes.

Damn Small Linux - you can't help but compare it to other distros in ways that shouldn't be fair. Speed: The CD, running live, from "boot:" prompt to GUI desktop with Dillo snapped open to the welcome page: 49 seconds! FORTY-NINE SECONDS!!! Somebody check Guinness, because I do believe this is the fastest PC operating system on the planet. Tom's root-boot floppy even takes a few seconds longer.

As fast as Damn Small comes up, there's no waiting around while it finishes loading stuff in the background. It's ready to work right now. Open Firefox and there's your Internet connection already found - you're ready to surf right now! Open any program in the field of desktop icons or in the surprisingly extensive menus that open from a right-click to the desktop, and the system snaps to attention and the program jumps onto your screen as if spring-loaded like a jack-in-the-box.

With each release, the installed base of programs shows a cleverer usage of the thrifty 50MB of disk space this distro will always limit itself to. It's fast to download and burn to CD, too. Yet the economical usage of this space shows quite an impressive cache of software. Of course, even though I'm loving the install choice, I still don't know why they put two web browsers on it (Dillo and Firefox), because ditching one would give them more than enough room to put some other worthy programs on there, such as the Emacs that I'm not going to mention because I spend too much time harping about it.

Onward: Damn Small has it's own package management system. Clicking the "MyDSL" icon opens a simple interface of categories, and you select what you need extra and it installs the package for you. This works whether your system is installed to hard drive or not, though in running live with a couple of extension packages in RAM can get hairy, and you can create a persistent home directory on your hard drive to install the extensions to. Anyway, MyDSL package installation at least equals apt-get, yum, or urpmi; if it doesn't then it beats it. The speed is limited only by the hosting server, and when it's installed it's loaded right into your desktop menu under MyDSL at the top. Gramma could do it with one eye closed.

Now, before we get too excited, a few cautions: One, don't even come here expecting a full system. It's a micro-distro, and that's that. Programmers won't find much here to do without installing a heck of a lot of stuff, there's no full office suite in sight, and you may be able to work a DSL install into a KDE or Gnome system, but I've yet to hear of that happening. Another caveat is that many versions of programs are old beyond belief; the kernel is 2.4, Firefox is 1.0.7, and other programs show similar age. The constraint on space prevents both too many programs and new versions of programs with too much bloat from being included.

I should also say that Damn Small definitely puts its own unique stamp on the whole Linux experience - that's either a plus or a minus depending how you look at it. You won't find much to do from the command line, and before you have it installed, you'll be surprised to hit Ctrl-Alt-F2 and not get a console - it's desktop terminal or nothing. Damn Small has its own way of doing things, and some of those ways change the way you're used to doing Linux.

As an installed system, in the week I've been running it as such, it's been a well-behaved little distro. I am relegating the computer formerly known as "Crash Test Dummy" exclusively to my kids' use, and part of the reason I chose this distro is because even a ten-year-old can handle installing and using more software on it. You literally never have to look at a command line on Damn Small Linux, from install to daily use. My only tick with the install is that I was surprised yesterday to discover that it creates no swap partition for itself!

I might be sharing some further experiences with extending the system later, time and winged monkeys permitting.

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Slackware 11.0 - a Review

Date/Time Permalink: 11/19/06 10:26:11 am
Category: Reviews

It doesn't take much these days for a die-hard Slackware user to question themselves. Slackware, the oldest surviving Linux distro, has been guided through the years by just one man - Patrick Volkerding, whose own unique vision of how things should be has determined what goes on in his pet distribution. And we usually grant that his choices are appropriate; not everything makes sense at first, but given time you usually discover that there's a very good reason for the decisions behind the building of the distro.

Slackware screen shot 1

Right up until the decision to drop Gnome. Now, Gnome desktops may not be the best that Linux has to offer, and I'm certainly no big fan of the desktop itself. But with Gnome comes support for at least half of the programs available on the entirety of Free and Open Source software. My initial install of Slackware was disappointing - had I not known that it would be fairly easy to extend, I actually would have replaced it with another distro! After all, the last time I got Slackware was 10.1, when it came with everything under the sun and was running quite well! I was cooing with joy over 10.1, which was almost a one-stop shop for everything I needed. So there was a marked difference in getting 11.0

On installing, which was easy enough, I had this insistent feeling that I'd missed something. After the install was finished, I roamed through the setup menus again and again, trying to find hidden options that simply weren't there. This couldn't be all there was? Apparently so. For instance, we've heard that you can have your choice of installing a modern 2.6 kernel. What that means is that you go ahead and finish the install with a 2.4 kernel, then go fetch the 2.6 kernel and put it in yourself. Thank God I found a tutorial site that could walk me through it with clear instructions.
UPDATE: See the incredibly helpful comment below from visitor Nillie on installing the 2.6 kernel from the disk itself. And, yes, I missed that! Semi-temporary insanity is my continuous pleaded defense.

Slackware screen shot 2

That kernel was mandatory, because for the next step - installing Gnome and with it the dozens of programs that I cannot live without - you need the 2.6 kernel or you're in for a devil of a time. The Open Source world has moved on since the days of 2.4, and quite a few programs will balk at meeting the antique version of kernels past. So, in getting Gnome, I shopped around before settling on Dropline.

Dropline practically deserves it's own review separate from Slackware. I used the Net download and install. Be warned, this takes about six to eight hours on a standard broadband connection, rather like what it took to get the whole Ubuntu ISO. You first download an install script from Dropline, then run the script, which will automagically download and install everything you need - and I do mean everything. It even upgraded my Firefox from 1.5 to 2.0! There was no hassle at all; it was comparable to my best experiences working with Debian apt-get packages. And this was on a clean Slackware 11.0 install, which is what Dropline recommends. All I can say about Dropline is that it's like getting the second half of Slackware!

Slackware screen shot 3

Now that I have Slackware 11.0, a 2.6.17 kernel, and the latest Dropline, I have a pretty rocking distro! It all works flawlessly together on my system - so I wonder why it couldn't have been offered together on one set of install disks, instead of making me assemble it piecemeal?

Other quirks of Slackware still live on. You still need to ferret out those hardware glitches and fix them. The good news is that you can easily find the places to fix problems in the text configuration files. Try repairing Fedora or Mandriva from the command line - I dare you - it can be done, but only by the very brave. The bad news is that (to give one example), unlike Fedora or Mandriva, Slackware still doesn't recognize a scroll-wheel out of the box. So you have to go in and add that "Option: ZAxisMapping 4 5" line to your xorg.conf file. And then there's the broad choice of custom fonts, but I have to be careful not to pick the wrong one because my monitor still seems to confuse Slackware as to exactly where it's screen borders lie. Dozens of little nits like this make it the Slackware experience you remember. No problem for experienced hands like me, but I can see where perhaps it's time to fix some of these issues.

When it's all said and done - and installed - (and tweaked!) - Slackware/Dropline is the very stable workhorse I've come to know and love. I'm a power user who needs a full software suite. I depend on my machine for my living, which encompasses everything from writing to graphics design to programming, not to mention maintaining this website. Games, what are those? I leave the games to the other computers in the house (with a couple of guilty pleasures reserved for Nethack and Goban).

So, in this age of specialized micro-distros which do one or two things well and the rest not very well at all, I have about two choices: Debian and Slackware with a few feasible derivatives on the side. And Debian always starts out great, but then several dozen apt-gets later I find myself with a lap-full of broken packages. Slackware makes you do more of the work yourself, but I find that I end up doing it anyway no matter what distro I use. I might as well start with a distro that puts all the tools in my hands to start with, as quite a few of the tools I depend on require me to compile tarballs anyway.

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