Wednesday, May 13, 2009

computers: sort-of switching to Linux

My key software applications, the Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail client, are cross-platform. I do all my command-line work in a Cygwin bash shell, which implements UNIX command-line tools in Windows. I've used Linux and Solaris at work for years, and occasionally fiddle with my Linux-based One Laptop Per Child XO-1. I don't pay the unneccessary Microsoft Office tax. I'm not playing any computer games right now.

So I should be a perfect candidate to switch to Linux. Knowing this, I've left unused partitions on my Windows computers for an eventual Linux install.

I took the plunge a week ago on this desktop PC. At boot I can choose to start up Kubuntu Linux running KDE 4.2.2! It's handsome and full-featured, and it's easy to install thousands of free programs. But I'm typing this from Windows XP.

Installation went OK, nearly everything worked, and after entering a complicated command once I can access documents and music from my Windows C: drive. But getting from 90% working to 95% took several evenings, and I may never get to that final 5%.
the desktop made sound, but Flash videos were silent
(I found the magic incantation to make low-level audio prefer my sound card.)
no cutting-edge Firefox
(I finally found a special 64-bit nightly build.)
no Thunderbird 3
Supposedly there's a 64-bit build somewhere.
no Quicken
I guess I have to install WINE windows support
display corruption
install a different video driver?
background music or Flash sound turns into horrible screech the moment I load a new window
don't use my fancy sound card?!
locks up about once a day
more to come
I wrote separately on my choice and installation of Kubuntu; the gory details of the problems I continue to overcome are at http://userbase.kde.org/User:Skierpage.

My biggest let-down from my theoretical love for Linux and open source software to the reality was in software installation and update. Virtually everything that runs on Linux is freely redistributable, so as I've noted one installer can install any piece of software from a choice of thousands, and keep everything you've installed up-to-date! But the graphical installer lacks features, there are literally dozens of package installation programs (people on IRC told me to use apt, aptitude, dpkg, synaptic, adept, ...), and nothing keeps a history of "Thursday at 1am you installed package random_lib.3.14 because a stranger on chat thought it would make sound work." The killer feature is a maze and a mess.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, October 9, 2008

software: saving as EPS for free instead of for $600

I'm helping a friend make postcards for SF Open Studios. First we struggled with getting the front in CMYK, now we just want a little ID on the back in the corner:
Francisco de Zurbarán
Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose

(It's an awesome painting.) There are probably 10,000 programs that can make that simple text, the problem is representing its layout and fonts and margins so that the printer can reliably reprint what you see in WordWrite Cheapsoft.

Rocket Postcards accepts EPS files. Encapsulated PostScript was developed by Adobe about 23 years ago to store PostScript printer instructions in a standard format so you could give them to someone else to print or embed in another program's printer output. One way to make an EPS file is simply pretend to print to a PostScript printer, add some EPS header information, and save the printer output to a file.

In the good old days when Microsoft gave a shit about helping its customers, their individual programs could directly Export or Save As EPS, and they provided a PSCRIPT.DRV printer driver for Windows that could save as EPS. Adobe also offered an ADOBEPS.DRV printer driver with some more options. But Microsoft can't stand any format they're unable to pervert and alter at will in order to f*** over competitors and make you pay to upgrade. So they stopped supporting the EPS format, stopped updating the PSCRIPT.DRV printer driver, and the aging driver doesn't run on Windows Vista.

Meanwhile Adobe is hardly blameless. They stopped offering ADOBEPS.DRV after Windows 98 and left it up to printer manufacturers to write their own driver or use Microsoft's, but printer manufacturers just dropped PostScript support from their low and mid-range printers altogether rather than pay Adobe for a PostScript printing engine. When Microsoft abandoned PSCRIPT.DRV, Adobe announced they would make a new fabulous PostScript printer driver for Windows, but they only distribute it through printer makers and I wasn't able to find it to download.

Adobe needs to make money. They used to promote EPS to make printers running PostScript popular so they would make money providing PostScript engines to printer manufacturers. Judging from Adobe's web site they aren't interested in that market any more, but they still like EPS because they make a drawing program that understands the PostScript printing commands. Adobe Illustrator can read EPS files and can create EPS files; indeed, Rocket Postcards has detailed instructions and templates for using it. But Illustrator costs $600. That's a stupid price to pay for two lines of text!

I was about to re-cable and plug in an old Windows 98 SE PC, on which PSCRIPT.DRV worked perfectly to make EPS files, when I realized there might be other programs that support the EPS format. Sure enough, Inkscape is a free and open source drawing program that can save as an EPS file. To save as EPS,
  • Start Inkscape
  • File > Document Properties > Page
    • set Default units to in
    • set Custom Size 6 in 4.25
  • use its Text tool to create the text block
  • File > Save as...
  • choose "Encapsulated PostScript (*.eps)"
  • click Save
  • in the Output dialog that appears:
    • check "Make bounding box around full page" (otherwise just the EPS is only the text box, not the document size)
    • check "Convert text to paths" (Rocket Postcards asks for this)
    • don't check "Embed fonts (Type 1 only)"
To confirm this worked, I opened the eps file in Photoshop Elements, which opened a dialog for the image size that intially showed the correct size in inches. I set the resolution to 600dpi in this dialog so the text wouldn't be jaggy, and Photoshop Elements displayed the text in the right location and looking sharp at high magnifications.

To be even more sure I also opened the eps file in Wordpad.
  • Should have %%BoundingBox: 0 0 432 306 , which is 6 by 4.25 inches in points
  • Should NOT have lots of gobbledygook like 13A7F563EB (that would represents a bitmap image)
  • instead it should instructions to draw each character outline: sort-of English words with lots of numbers
  • Should be smaller than a megabyte.
But when I sent this simple file to Rocket Postcards, they printed 500 postcards with the text centered in the back of the postcard!

It turns out Adobe's own programs Illustrator and InDesign ignore the bounding box in Adobe's own EPS format, and plop down the EPS they receive in the center of their page. Lame! You have to provide a white background or surrounding line to make them show the text positioned relative to its surroundings

Hooray for free software! Down with proprietary software from companies whose business models and focus inevitably change.

Labels: , , ,

software: making CMYK print files for free instead of $700

I'm helping a friend make postcards for SF Open Studios.

Rocket Postcards prints postcards from your source files. So take a nice picture; use a cheap or free image editing program like Photoshop Elements to resize it to 1275 x 1800 (4.25 by 6 inches at 300dpi) and tweak it; upload it to Rocket Postcards and order your postcards!

Not quite. Rocket Postcards requires your files be in CMYK mode. They have the grace to explain why:
All images must be in CMYK color mode. ... RGB images are not acceptable - if you normally design for web or multimedia, keep in mind that printed output uses a different color model (subtractive rather than additive) and corresponds to percentages of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inks rather than composite Red Green and Blue monitor light.
Fair enough, but your camera's images are RGB TIFF or JPEG files, how to get CMYK? Adobe wrote code to work in CMYK color space 17 years ago for Photoshop 2.0 in 1991. But unlike a free open source program, Adobe needs artificial reasons to make you pay $700 for Photoshop instead of $120 for the Photoshop Elements and Premier Elements combo. So there's no CMYK support in Photoshop Elements. Don't like it? Don't buy software.

As usual there are alternatives. The fine complicated free and open source ImageMagick software suite has a command-line tool to convert between image formats. The command line you want is
C:\my\docs>"C:\Program Files\ImageMagick-6.4.3-Q16\convert.exe"
-colorspace CMYK -type ColorSeparation
"original file" postcard_front.tif
To check, run imdisplay.exe and view it. Also run identify.exe -verbose:
C:\my\docs>"C:\Program Files\ImageMagick-6.4.3-Q16\identify.exe"
-verbose postcard_front.tif
For some reason the CMYK image is in PixelsPerCentimeter, so size appears as
  Resolution: 118.11x118.11
Print size: 15.24x10.795
Units: PixelsPerCentimeter
Setting -units PixelsPerInch doesn't work, I wasn't sure how to change this without resampling. Programs agree the size is 4.25 by 6 inches. Hooray for free software!

Labels: , , ,

Friday, June 6, 2008

web: Firefox 3 and what stands behind it

The Mozilla project is a global community of people who believe that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet.
Makes it a no-brainer that I've used Mozilla since years before there was a Firefox web browser. The idea of the project was important before it made a decent browser, it's gratifying that the project has delivered the best current browser.

Firefox 3 is coming very soon, the improvements are real (here's a short Flash tutorial/intro). Release Candidate 2 is ready right now and is great. Or sign up now to grab it on download day.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

computers: saying NO to the Office tax with Google Docs

There have always been free alternatives to Microsoft's huge bloated expensive Office suite, particularly OpenOffice.org.

I don't use them because apart from programming in Eclipse I create my documents on the Web (like this one). If I need to send out a paper letter, I use Wordpad.exe.

So what do you do if someone sends you an Office document as an attachment? Wordpad will sort-of open a Microsoft Word .doc file, but an Excel .xls or PowerPoint .pps/.ppt is meaningless. Of course, no one should be sending attachments, since as Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said in Upside magazine 10 years ago:
I'm trying to ban e-mail attachments. I just want an ASCII e-mail.
If you want to show me something, put it in a Web page, publish it,
give me the URL, and I'll look at it. That's the new model.
You can't stop others from sending you Office files, so most people give up and buy a copy of Office.

Enter another killer free service on the Web from Google, Google Docs. You can upload any of those file formats to it, or you can create a document/spreadsheet/presentation from scratch. More importantly, you can publish any file in Google Docs to the Web so other people can view it, comment on it, or even collaborate on it from their browser. The file format becomes irrelevant. No more sending a document back and forth in e-mail with lots of comments.

Next time you think you need to send an Office document to other people, put it on docs.google.com or create it from scratch there, and send them the link.

Just as YouTube is slowly but surely killing off the inefficient approach of e-mailing huge video files to share with friends, Google Docs should kill off e-mailing large jokey PowerPoint slide shows around. As a demo, here's a slightly naughty PowerPoint joke thing I received as an attachment, now on the Web at http://docs.google.com/Present?docid=dcvvrqtp_6c3vccz&fs=true.

I know it's hard to believe, so I'll repeat it:
You DON'T need Microsoft Office on your computer
Donate the $200 to charity.

Update There are other free Web-based applications besides Google Docs. Here's the same PowerPoint presentation in Zoho's "Show" app: http://show.zoho.com/public/skierpage/Oneofthosedays.pps

Labels: , ,