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Open source – you’re hired!

My wife and I are gearing up for a date in just a couple hours. It’s kind of different: we are going to eat and then go to a local Starbuck’s and WRITE. Yes, just write. Not a movie, not a concert. Just writing on our laptops at a local coffee shop.

Okay, I’m not trying to bore you with our dating lifestyle. I just wanted to share the fact that my wife can jump between her Windows netbook, my MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, and Linux machines because she uses Libre Office to do all of her writing. I converted her a few years ago, and the results have been incredibly useful. There is no thought about what machine is being used. Because they ALL have Libre Office, it is a piece of cake for her to work on the story she has been writing for years.

Last night, I powered up her antique Windows 98 computer to dig up an old copy of her manuscript. It had over 30 pages of content that had been lost. Finding it was amazing. The trick was figuring out how to get it off the machine. At first, I tried to email it out. Unfortunately, Internet Explorer 5 doesn’t work with Yahoo Mail or GMail. I tried to install a newer browser, but couldn’t find one that would install successfully on that old system.

Next I tried inserting a thumb drive. Sadly, it needed drivers that I couldn’t install. We had copied it to a spare floppy disk (hadn’t used those in awhile). My next step would be to either pull the floppy drive out and plug it into a more up-to-date machine, or simply pull the entire hard drive. Before doing that, I decided to boot up the machine using an Ubuntu Live CD. That was tough because this machine had only about 500MHz of CPU power. Eventually it came up. I thought it would connect to the network immediately, but somehow it didn’t.

Starting up Firefox froze the system because there just wasn’t enough memory. Thankfully, the command-line interface saved the day. Ubuntu easily mounted the thumb drive. I decided at this point that installing Java and CrashPlan was ridiculous and I didn’t have the time for it. I copied the old manuscript files onto the drive, ejected it, and powered the machine down. I walked downstairs and gladly announced I had rescued the files.

The point is that through the power of open source software, Ubuntu, cheap thumb drives, and Libre Office have commodotized the ability to write. My wife and I don’t have to choose a computer, an operating system, or anything else in order to work on a fictional novel.

Layering is the ultimate graphics tool

Today I decided to spend a little time creating a graphic header for this blog. I don’t have much in graphics art tools. I could download Gimp, figure it out, and probably get disappointed that it can’t do something I want. Or maybe buy something else, install it, figure it out, and again get disappointed when it can’t do something I want. Looming over all of this is the fact that I just want to build a nice little image to head up a BLOG. This isn’t a book cover or some other professional endeavor, so why exert that much effort.

Instead, I figured if I could just layer the things that I want, a snapshot with Jing should do the trick. For starters, I’m a big Tron fan, so I figured some tiny image from the movie would look nice and be alright under Fair Use. In my mind, I could visualize some source code overlaid on it. Remembering how my mac’s Terminal app is slightly transparent, I figured out how to increase the transparency and reduce the brightness of the text. By placing the Terminal window over the image, it made a nice layered image.

I grabbed a screenshot with Jing and uploaded it to the blog. Unfortunately, the title and description displayed on top of the image looked terrible. I needed to layer the text on top of the image with some special formatting. Unfortunately, positioning a text editor on top would include the window frames and look terrible.

Next step: LibreOffice. I created a new text document and inserted the layered image I built before hand. Then I created a couple of text frames, changed the text color to white and background color to transparent. Tweaked the fonts, and put it in Print Preview. Zoomed in to 100% and grabbed another screenshot. Perfect! Uploaded to blog and requested the image be displayed in lieu of the text. Awesome!

The trick to all this? Thinking with a UNIX-like mentality: use several tools that each do one job well, and string them together to build a final product.

Now this I can do.  –Sam Flynn