Monday, 24 April 2006

Parting, temporary and permanent

Innalillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. To Allah we belong and truly to Him we shall return. [Surah al-Baqarah, 2: 155-156]

Yesterday maternal grandfather passed away. He was surrounded by his dearest family members. Unfortunately, I couldn't be there due to another family-related reason. He is my real life hero. May Allah place my grandfather among the obedient and grant him mercy and forgiveness. Amin.

I'm planning to take a break from writing here for awhile. I have many things to take care of in the present and coming weeks. I would like to thank everyone who visited here. I hope you have gained something useful from my scrawlings and ramblings.

Thank you again and take care. I appreciate all your support.

Sunday, 16 April 2006

Open source and freeware for the artistic soul

Some people think you absolutely need commercial software to produce good quality digital art. Well, not quite, IMHO. I'm here to introduce to you some of the open source and freeware available for any of your creative needs. You can download, install and start using them without getting up to reach for your wallet or purse.

Please note that all of the following software were written based on the Windows-based version.

My original purpose for GIMPshop was to make the Gimp accessible to the many Adobe Photoshop users out there. I hope I’ve done that. And maybe along the way, I can convert a Photoshop pirate into a Gimp user.
Scott Moschella
GIMPshop is actually The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) that was redesigned by Scott Moschella to look and feel like Adobe Photoshop. Major difference: Photoshop is expensive and GIMP is free. GIMPshop is an excellent all-round photo editor which can basically do most things that Photoshop can. You can use it draw moustache on the picture of your favourite dictator, create a picture selective colourisation or touch up any digital pictures you've taken.

For some context on GIMPshop and Photoshop differences, please read Chad Smith's discussion on GIMPShop versus Photoshop.

Portable GIMP
Portable GIMP is The GIMP in its original look, but in a smaller size that you can install in a USB drive. Now you can take The GIMP with you and draw moustache on the picture of your favourite dictator on your friend's PC.

At long last, an open source software for drawing SVG (scalable vectors graphics). SVG is great for line diagrams, logos, symbols and anything that uses text in it. The current version is user-friendly enough to get most people into drawing their first SVG. Drop by Tavmjong Bah's A Guide to Inkscape site, it's one of the best places to cure you of any Inkscape cluelessness.

Paint is the default bitmap drawing utility that comes together with Windows. But if you want extra firepower, then Paint.NET is what you need. Designed to be a replacement for Paint, Paint.NET has the capability to create layers, unlimited undo and a host of filters for creating special effects. If you want to do basic photo and bitmap image editing and you find The GIMP to be complex, Paint.NET could be the tool for you. However, it's only for Windows 2000 and XP users and requires .NET Framework 2.0 installed in order for it to work.

This software has one of the best set of painting tools. It simulates the natural brush tools like brushes, chalks and charcoal rather well. Artweaver is best for digital painting, and if you have something like a pen tablet, you'll be having hours of fun painting on your PC. Works well with the mouse too and doesn't leave paint all over your hands and clothes.

Finding the right font can be less of a chore with FontHit. FontHit lists down all the fonts installed on your PC in a preview form, allowing you to pick easily the ones you want to use. It's small in size and an indispensable tool for working with text.

Found a colour you like on a website or program and you want to know its value? Dropper can help. Dropper is small drag tool that tell you the value of a colour the pixel on your screen in RGB (both hexadecimal and decimal), COLORREF (useful if you're a developer) and HTML by simply dragging the dropper icon over it.

A similar colour tool to Dropper, but the added feature of creating your own palette. Now you group the colours you like of any theme. Great for discovering colours for shading and shadow effects. calls it, "Ein geniales kleines Programm! (an ingenious small program!)" I'm inclined to agree.

If working in 3D is more your cup of tea, then you wouldn't want to give Blender a miss. It is an open source 3D modeling, animation, rendering, and playback software that can be be used and distributed fully free within any educational, professional or commercial environment. Check out the gallery section of the Blender website to see some of the awesome stuff that people have done using it.

Sonicsmiths, rejoice! The open source world has not left you forsaken. This free, cross-platform sound editor is the forge where you can record live sounds, work with various audio formats like MP3, WAV and the open source Ogg Vorbis format and splice, cut and mix sounds together whenever the DJ fever hits you.

Caveat: Fair warning, folks. Using open source and freeware requires courage.

A software is only useful when you know how to use it. Unfortunately, most software aren't intutive, which means you can't figure out how to use by simply looking at the interface and playing around with the tools. This is especially true for a powerful and feature-rich programs like GIMPshop, Blender or Audacity.

There are many books written on commercial software like Photoshop or 3D Max, but only a few are available of freeware and open source software. So is the number of forums and websites catering for the freeware and open source software crowd. This can dampen your spirit sometimes.

But don't let that scare you. Help is around, if you're willing to be a bit patient. By this I mean visiting and participating in forums, reading the manual and help files, searching for examples on tutorial websites and spending some time on trying out what you've learnt.

Like learning anything else, the time taken and the steepness of the learning curve varies from one individual to another. A program that I find easy to use may not be so for you.

Rather than going for all form of creative endeavours, try to narrow down on form that you like most. A focused effort is often better than spreading yourself thinly, skillwise.

Photo, bitmap images editing/manipulation: GIMPshop, Paint.NET
Line art, SVG, diagrams: Inkscape
Digital painting: Artweaver
3D stuff: Blender
Audio tinkering: Audacity

I mostly use Inkscape because I like working with SVG. I also have other programs installed because sometimes Inkscape can't produce the output that I want. For an overexposed photo, I use The GIMP to correct it first before I import it into SVG using Inkscape. Similarly, working text is easier in Inkscape where I edit them first there before I paste them into any image using The GIMP. In short, it's good to be versatile.

Remember to check software license on its official website. This rule especially concerns freeware, because some freeware are only allowed for non-commercial uses. Licenses differ according to the terms cited by the respective developers, so never assume. The best thing is to check and be sure.

Also, check your own PC's amount of RAM and hard disk space. Software like these are monstrous RAM consumers, and anyone with anything smaller than 256 MB RAM could be in for some painful moments. Allow some space in your hard disk for saving your digital masterpieces as they can be large in size sometimes, depending on the type and complexity. Always keep an eye on your level of available free space or risk yourself having to deal with a slowed down PC.

I hope you now have some idea on how to turn your PC into a digital studio. The list above is not by any means exhaustive, there could be other (or even better) alternatives out there that I haven't found out yet. Do share with us any experience or info that you have.

Selamat berkarya!

(This post was written with the help of Ask the eConsultant's I want a Freeware Utility to ... 300+ common problems solved)

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Accidental encounter with a former super

Last week, I ran into my former project supervisor at the library. Oh no, I thought. At first.

Please don't get me wrong. My supervisor is a great guy. But the project my partner and I did with him was, well, a tragedy of sorts. We wrote a software that crashed minutes before we presented it. And you know you've hit rock bottom when when the nicest, friendliest, most understanding lecturer in the department asks you conclude your presentation when you barely made it half way through. It was a major blow to our morale.

Fortunately, we got to present for a second time, this time for an even smaller audience. Our supervisor gave us the detailed walkthrough of our 'list of mistakes'. I almost swore at the time to never do any programming for as long as I live.

So I hope you see now why I'm a bit adamant about saying hi. However, through the unexplainable miracle of God, I went to him anyway and surprise him (and myself as well). He hasn't seen me in a year or so.

SV: So, what are doing here? Still not finished, eh?
Me: Ehehe... (nervous laugh)

Selamba orang tua ni, kata aku tak grad lagi...But that is his brand of humour.

Me: I'm doing my post graduate now, but over at the other department.
SV: Ah, I see. So now we're colleagues.

He said, "we're colleagues now!" I almost fainted when I heard that. He's also a post graduate student but he's attached as a teaching staff.

We talked for awhile about our personal lives and I realised how he used to advise me on things other than the project, like never spend more time with the PC than with the wife when you're married, and other pearls of wisdom.

Me: How's your post graduate thesis?
SV: Look at this. I don't know what they all mean. Headache.

He was actually referring to the equations used in ARMA or autoregressive moving average model. It's a very, very advanced method for digital signal processing. One of its possible application is for MRI in medical diagnostics.

I was actually surprised to see someone like him feeling challenged about something like this. I used to think that I was never smart enough to make sense of all these equations. All the integrations (pengamiran, if you still remember them from your Add Maths classes), all the variables and whatnots.

Lovely, isn't it?

After we ran out of topics, we decided to wish each other all the best and let him return to his library research so he can solve his current problem, finish his thesis and graduate.

On hindsight, I'm glad that I stopped by and said hi to him. I felt like things turned sour after our tragic project, but he assured me that it was all in the past and the best thing to do is to learn from the experience.

And to not do that would be a greater tragedy.

Wednesday, 5 April 2006 2.0 help

If you think can't hold a candle to Microsoft Office, then this lady could convince you otherwise. Solveig Haugland's blog is loaded with example of things you can accomplish with this open source office productivity suite. You'll be surprised, I'm guessing. I know I was (and still am, actually).

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