The problem with free

I came across an interesting essay recently that sheds a bit of light on why free/open source software hasn’t been more widely adopted in production environments. I’ve been using Inkscape, Blender and Gimp for much of my design work this semester, and I have to say Frederic Brooks nails it in his software development magnum opus, The Mythical Man-Month.

He starts off by analyzing garage-workshop software that often does things much better than suites on which hundreds of programmers sweat for years, and gives a good explanation for how that’s possible. Essentially, a program may be brilliant (and all three of the packages mentioned above do some things extremely well), but to be successful on the market it has to also be a system (in other words it has to to be able to work with other programs), and has to be a product, meaning it has to be reasonably usable by a wide range of people, not just savvy programmers. He says most of the time spent on a software package is not developing its meat-and-bones features, but actually taking them from the concept stage to being a system product. And that’s where many open source software packages fall short – they are often developed by and for programmers, who have little actual knowledge of what a professional user expects. In that respect Blender certainly is a notable exception in every regard – it is a system product of the highest caliber, but it has also been developed to a large extent by filmmakers, who are its target audience. Gimp is also a solid performer, and does the things you expect it to do very well. In general has very few shortcomings in comparison with Photoshop, the package it’s most often compared to.

Inkscape, however, is a different story altogether. It has some truly outstanding features (the tiled clone feature for one is amazing and very useful, see this post for a sample of what it can do), but it often breaks down at the day-to-day usability level. Printing and exporting in vector format is a chore for all but the simplest graphics. The program is constantly being developed, but the developers (as with most FOSS projects mostly volunteers) seem uninterested in making it a tool that professional users could apply in real production environments. Sure, you can do pretty much everything with it that you can with Illustrator and it doesn’t cost a dime, but what good is that when basic features like exporting and printing are an obstacle course? One that is possible to navigate, to be sure, but an obstacle course all the same.

That falls in neatly with Brooks’ argument – if you want Inkscape to output bitmap images (i.e. the format preferred by internet-minded types), Inkscape can’t be beat. But you better not want your final output to be vector-based, or you’re going to run into problems. Sure, on discussion boards someone will helpfully suggest that in the end all output is bitmap, since printers make dots not lines. But that misses the point that having the extra stage to go through does nothing to make your workflow smoother, and workflow is what professional software is all about. Just ask Adobe.

Inkscape is not alone in this, unfortunately. While there are more and more Blenders in the free/open source/libre software universe, it has some ways to go before it can truly stand on its own against commercial software. Having said that, I’m still wholeheartedly on its side, having put my money where my mouth is on more than one occasion. I simply think it’s worth having them around, if only as real competition to the mainstays of the industry.

End the wars

As a former US Navy sailor who served during the first war against Iraq, I just wanted to throw in my two cents worth on the anniversary of The Dumbest War Ever Fought by the US. The argumentation for US forces remaining in Iraq is really non-existent – the Iraqis don’t want us there, we (as in the American people, not Haliburton or The-Company-Formerly-Known-As-Blackwater) have nothing to gain there, and – as if it needed repeating – there were never any weapons of mass destruction there. Saddam’s dead. Leave the Iraqis to make Iraq whatever the hell they want it to be, even if it’s no longer a single country. It’s their country, their business.

The rationale for going to Afghanistan was the search for al-Qaida leaders who have been threatening to repeat 9/11 and so on. I’m not sure how invading a whole country was necessary to find a few guys hiding in the mountains. Sounds more like the job for a team of well-trained special ops people. But of course then Dick Chaney and his ilk wouldn’t be making billions on defense contracts, and the military-industrial complex would have to find something other to do. The Soviets, who had no moral compunctions about humane methods could not control all of Afghanistan for many years. There is little chance of the US doing that any time soon, especially that Soviet-style methods were much more effective in the short term. So I say send in the Seals, Green Berets or whatever other secret goons there are in the deepest recesses of the US military, take care of the dozen or so al-Qaida guys this whole thing’s been about all this time, and bring everyone back home. And leave the Afghans to do whatever they want to do with their country – if they want to live under Sharia law, let them. As long as they’re not trying to stone people on Oak Street Beach, what business is it of ours how they live?

Unfortunately, the hopes so many of us had of Obama ending the Republican insanity have gone unanswered. It looks as though Cheney’s boys have won, and the president is now simply a better-spoken, better-looking and slightly taller George W. Bush.

D’Arcy Thompson Strikes Back

Having ridiculed the  literal treatment of D’Arcy Thompson’s esoteric ideas about form on several occasions (not to mention attempts to apply them directly in architecture), I was somewhat dumbstruck when I saw this:

Our world may be a giant hologram – New Scientist

Now if that ain’t the ultimate epigenetic plane story, I don’t know what could be. However, though I’m not sure if I understand it correctly, it seems that unlike Sanford Kwinter’s take on Thompson, this says nothing about individual free will (while Kwinter’s IMO is the apex of determinism).

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

A conversation with a libertarian

Got a little argument going with a feller called Brian Drake on the Mises Institute website. I thought it was good enough to share here:

The main thrust of the thing is that libertarians don’t accept the concept of society, preferring to look at it as a collection of individual actions. Strangely enough, they’re more than willing to talk about “The Government” as this ethereal but unitary entity that makes everyone do things they don’t want to do.


Through Blender’s Durian project I discovered a great little program called Alchemy. It’s great for producing “inflected chaos” images like the ones below, with lots of cool “randomizer” tools to incapacitate the anal-retentive side of your brain. You can download Alchemy from its creators’ website. The program is free and open, so go for it. Here’s what I got playing around with various settings:





I especially like the “pull shapes” option – you can load up a PDF with vector shapes of your own, and it scatters them loosely along your pen line. The colors can either be fixed or random, as can be the transparency. All in all, one of the coolest “right brain” toys I’ve seen in a while.