Saturday, August 27, 2011

Daniel's Software Musings (Part 1)

As you can see, it's been a few days since I said I would do some reviewing. When I wrote that, I conveniently managed to forget that I tend to put off doing reviews because the philosophical concentration required to achieve an Aristotelian level of understanding of the review subject's essence is somewhat taxing. But I didn't forget, and it's been nagging me for the past two days, so here's the first part of what will most likely be a multi-part series over time of various programs.

To start off, I'm going to review some programs that I use fairly frequently. I'll start of by mentioning that all of the programs I'll be reviewing are free; most free in the sense of “freedom to use for your own purposes” (which usually means open source), all free in the sense of “no cost”. Also, because of that, most of these programs will run on pretty much any operating system.

Blender is a 3-dimensional modeling program that I've been using since the autumn of 2008. I've posted pictures made using it before, most recently here. It is a very powerful program, and as such has a learning curve that may charitably be described as “precipitous”. However, for the persevering, there are a lot of resources online detailing how to use it, ranging from tutorials for those who have never opened it before to discussions of many of the highly advanced features that are hidden within. Blender may not be quite on par with similar commercial products, but it is still an incredibly versatile and powerful program, and is a couple of thousand dollars cheaper to boot. If you're willing to put the time into learning it, you can produce some amazing stuff. In addition to still renders, it can also do animation.

The GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program as the full unimaginative name goes, is an incredibly powerful application on par with the much costlier Photoshop in many ways. And the ways it isn't are ones that typically only the most advanced of users will notice. I use this program for all my picture editing needs (such as the many panoramas I make) because it can handle anything from the simplest of tasks to projects of extreme difficulty and complexity. For instance, the picture in this post was made entirely with GIMP. I used it to make a few modifications to the Blender logo picture seen above, in fact. Like any new program it will take you a while to get used to, but it definitely has an easier learning curve than Blender by virtue of the fact that you're usually working with pre-existing pictures instead of making them from scratch, and you can get your feet wet doing small modifications before jumping into the deep end of photo editing.

If you need a powerful, multi-purpose programming language that is also simple to learn, you need Python. This elegant language is easy to pick up (I've learned everything I know about it by consulting its thorough and well-organized help documents) and yet has a wide variety of standard commands that provide most of what you need right away (“batteries included” is a phrase often used by fans to describe it). And if that function you need doesn't happen to come with the download, chances are, unless it's an extremely uncommon or unusual function, that someone, somewhere, has already coded it up and made it available. Ultimately, Python provides a nice “first language” for beginners that can be explored and extended to match the user's growing skill. It's well summed up in the unofficial motto: “easy things should be easy, and hard things should be possible.”

Quod Libet
Quod Libet is a very interesting little music organization and playback program that plays a variety of common formats. It comes with Ex Falsa, a bundle of code that organizes your music based on tags. Or, rather, it lets you organize your music the way you want to using tags. It had a definite learning curve to it, but I find it easy and enjoyable to use now. It lets you search your music based on any tags it has: name, composer, album, artist, etc. Like other such programs, you can organize your music into playlists, which it will play very well. And it has one real stand-out feature I haven't seen before: by right-clicking on the Play button while a song is playing you can tell Quod Libet to stop after that song, which turns out to be a surprisingly useful feature when you only want to listen to one song in a playlist. It's one of those didn't-know-you-needed-it-but-now-you-can't-live-without-it functions. (If you're wondering about the name, “quod libet” is a Latin phrase meaning reoughly “whatever you like” or “what you will.” It comes from a phrase in logic “ex falsa, quod libet”, which means “from a falsehood, whatever you want” referring to the fact that if you begin with a false premise you can logically prove any (incorrect) thing you want. The developers liked the idea of “whatever you want” to describe the organization capabilities of Quod Libet, hence the name.)

Keep watching in the future for more informative and hopefully interesting reviews! A hui hou!

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