Whatcha Runnin’ Man? (Linux Applications — part 1)

I’ve had several folks send emails asking about what parts that I’d build into a machine, what themes are in use in my screenshots, and what programs I’d recommend for a new Linux user.  As one who favors the ‘work smarter’ over the ‘work harder’ method, I thought I’d post this info over the next few posts, rather than sending a 32 page email to them all.

Groovy!  You’ve got your new Ubuntu machine up and running, and you’re wondering what apps you’ll want to install.  Before you go searching the apps in the repositories, let’s make sure you have some key repositories added to ease your transition to Linux. Before you have much of a chance to look around, you’ll be greeted by the Update Manager.  This cat will be a great friend.

  • On the Update Manager dialog box, choose the ‘Settings’ button

    Update Manager

    Update Manager

  • You’ll be taken to the ‘Updates’ tab of the Software Settings dialog.  On ‘Updates’ tab make sure all items are selected as below.

    Software Sources - Update tab settings

    Software Sources — Update tab settings

  • On the ‘Ubuntu Software’ tab make sure all items are selected as below.

    Software Sources - Ubuntu Software tab settings

    Software Sources — Ubuntu Software tab settings

  • On the ‘Third Party Software’ tab make sure all sources are selected as below.

    Software Sources - Third Party Software tab settings

    Software Sources — Third Party Software tab settings

  • Select the ‘Add…’ button and then paste into APT line:
    deb http://​download​.virtualbox​.org/​v​i​r​t​u​a​l​b​o​x​/​d​e​b​ian jaunty non-free
  • Click the ‘Add Source’ button

    Add Source

    Add Source

  • A must add for all Linux gamers is the PlayDeb repository.  Select the ‘Add…’ button and then paste into APT line:
    deb http://​archive​.getdeb​.net/​u​b​u​ntu jaunty-getdeb games
  • Click the ‘Add Source’ button as in the previous example
  • On the ‘Authentication’ tab select ‘Ubuntu CD Image…’ and click the ‘Remove’ button

    Software Sources - Authentication tab

    Software Sources — Authentication tab

  • On the ‘Statistics’ tab, select the ‘Submit statistical information’ to help the developers know what is being used etc. and close out of the Software Settings dialog and the Update Manager dialog
  • Open ‘Terminal’ (Applications->Accessories->Terminal)
  • Next we’ll add the VirtualBox key (paste into console):
    sudo wget ‑q http://​download​.virtualbox​.org/​v​i​r​t​u​a​l​b​o​x​/​d​e​b​i​a​n​/​s​u​n​_​v​b​o​x​.​asc ‑O- | sudo apt-key add -
  • Next we’ll run a full update before we start adding software.
    sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade
  • It may ask you if you wish to continue with the update, type ‘Y’ and hit the ‘enter’ key
  • Go grab a snack, this may take a bit.
  • You may be prompted to reboot with a ‘Restart Required’ dialog after the upgrade has completed.  Go ahead and click on the ‘Restart Now’ button, it won’t take long.
  • Log back in and open ‘Terminal’ (Applications->Accessories->Terminal)
  • Then we’ll add the PlayOnLinux repository and key (paste into console):
    sudo wget http://​deb​.playonlinux​.com/​p​l​a​y​o​n​l​i​n​u​x​_​j​a​u​n​t​y​.​l​ist ‑O /etc/apt/sources.list.d/playonlinux.list
    sudo wget ‑q http://​deb​.aplu​.fr/​p​o​l​.​gpg ‑O- | sudo apt-key add -
  • Add the Medibuntu repository and key (paste into console):
    sudo wget http://www.medibuntu.org/sources.list.d/‘lsb_release ‑cs‘.list –output-document=/etc/apt/sources.list.d/medibuntu.list; sudo apt-get ‑q update; sudo apt-get –yes ‑q –allow-unauthenticated install medibuntu-keyring; sudo apt-get ‑q update
    sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade && sudo apt-get install medibuntu-keyring && sudo apt-get update
  • It may ask you if you wish to install the keyring, type ‘Y’ and hit the ‘enter’ key
  • We’ve added the PlayDeb repository.  So let’s add its key as well (paste into console):
    wget ‑O- http://​archive​.getdeb​.net/​g​e​t​d​e​b​-​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​.​key | sudo apt-key add -
  • Next we need to complete a bit of clean up and remove install CD from the Repository list (paste into console):
    cd /etc/apt/
    sudo gedit sources.list
  • A text editor named gedit will open the file ‘sources.list’
  • Delete the following line (usually within the first few lines) from the file:
    # deb cdrom:[Ubuntu 9.04 _Jaunty Jackalope_ — Release i386 (20090420.1)]/ jaunty main restricted
  • Then save and close this file

{cont to Whatcha Runnin’ Man? (Linux Applications — part 2)}

Whatcha Runnin’ Man? (New to Linux)

I’ve had several folks send emails asking about what parts that I’d build into a machine, what themes are in use in my screenshots, and what programs I’d recommend for a new Linux user. As one who favors the ‘work smarter’ over the ‘work harder’ method, I thought I’d post this info over the next few posts, rather than sending a 32 page email to them all.

So you’ve got a decent machine and you’re wanting to try out this crazy new Linux thing. I’ve used various Linux distributions for various projects, and they all have their strengths. If you’re a noob to the wonderful world of Linux, I’d recommend you start out with one of the many Ubuntu varieties. They have multiple versions for whatever environment and look you prefer. If you’re the type who likes things to ‘just work,’ aka the Mac type, Ubuntu (Gnome) is for you. Love getting buried in the details and customizing every nook and cranny of your workspace, Kubuntu (KDE) is your new best friend. Linux built for the classroom computer lab is dubbed Edubuntu (Gnome). Wanting to test Linux on an old machine before replacing the OS on your main box isn’t a crime, but you may want to choose Xubuntu (XFCE). You can even run this stuff on your phone/PDA/netbook with the Ubuntu Netbook edition. They also have derivatives for multimedia production, Ubuntu Studio (Gnome), and even Mythbuntu for building that home theater MythTV PC you’ve always wanted. Last but definitely not least, if you’ve got a rack that needs new life breathed into it, try the Ubuntu Server Edition.

We’ll be discussing primarily the Ubuntu Desktop Edition primarily using the Gnome Desktop Environment in the post, however most is very comparable if not identical to the other variations.

Let’s discuss installation. The Ubuntu installation is a piece of cake (or pie if you prefer) and only a couple areas foul folks up.

  • You’ll need to get your hands on an Ubuntu install image. You can download one directly, via torrent, via wubi, or if you have a spare USB thumb drive and a buddy who already has Ubuntu installed, have them make you a USB install stick.
  • Insert the install disc/usb stick and boot up the machine.
  • Select Language for Installer. If you want to read everything in English, like I do, just hit the ‘enter’ key.
  • Select ‘Install Ubuntu’ and hit the ‘enter’ key.
  • Select Language for Ubuntu. Again, I read English, just click ‘Forward’
  • Where are you? Pick the Region and the closest City in your time zone, and click ‘Forward’
  • Keyboard Layout. The ‘Suggested option’ is generally perfect, click ‘Forward’
  • Select ‘Specify partitions manually’ and click ‘Forward’
  • HEAD’S UP!! Okay, this can totally hose your machine if you don’t pay attention and know what you’re doing. Make sure you know which hard drive you want to use for your Linux installation, otherwise you’re going to wipe out your music/movie/photo/game collection, your Windows partitions, etc. If you’re wanting to toss Windows out the, uh, window, this will overwrite those partitions if you choose. Just make sure you backup anything you want to keep on another drive, disc, server, etc.
  • That said, pick the drive/partition you want to install Ubuntu on and ‘Delete partition.’ To scrap the whole drive and use the whole drive for Ubuntu, choose ‘New partition table’ and click ‘Forward’
  • Now you have ‘free space’ on that particular drive/partition. Select the ‘free space’ and click ‘New partition’
  • Create a new partition.
    For the first new partition (swap), you’ll want to make sure that the ‘Type for the new partition’ is set as ‘Primary’
    ‘New partition size in megabytes’ as a general rule, needs to equal twice the amount of RAM on your machine. If you have 2GB of RAM, you’ll want 4GB of swap space. (1GB = 1024MB)
    ‘Location for the new partition’ should be set to ‘Beginning’
    ‘Use as’ needs to be ‘swap area’ and click ‘OK
    You’ll notice that your swap space partition now appears on your partition table screen.
  • Select the remaining ‘free space’ and click ‘New partition’
  • Create a new partition.
  • For this partition (root or /), you’ll want to make sure that the ‘Type for the new partition’ is set as ‘Logical’
    To use all the remaining space, leave the ‘New partition size…’ as it is. If you plan to have separate partitions for your settings (/home) or the like, choose the size to fit your preference.
    ‘Location for the new partition’ should be set to ‘Beginning’
    ‘Use as’ should be set to either Ext3 or ReiserFS, I prefer the latter
    ‘Mount point’ should be set to ‘/’ unless you’re planning to have separate partitions for your settings etc. If you choose the latter select the mount point to preference. Click ‘OK
    You’ll now notice that ‘free space’ is all gone and we’re ready to click ‘Forward’
  • Now you get to tell Ubuntu what to name everything. When you’ve got that all filled out, click ‘Forward’
  • You’ll see the last Warning about the partitions and a general summary of your install options selected thus far. Take this time to check again to make sure you haven’t selected the wrong drive/partition etc. Once you’re sure that all is well, click on ‘Install’
  • Now is a great time to go grab your beverage of choice and relax for a bit. Don’t get too comfortable though, this won’t take long.
  • Installation Complete! Yee-Haw! Click on ‘Restart Now’
  • Remove the CD/USB installer and hit the ‘enter’ key like it says

As always, feel free to comment or ask questions about any of the ideas shared in this post.

Whatcha Runnin’ Man? (Hardware Recommendations)

I’ve had several folks send emails asking about what parts that I’d build into a machine, what themes are in use in my screenshots, and what programs I’d recommend for a new Linux user.  As one who favors the ‘work smarter’ over the ‘work harder’ method, I thought I’d post this info over the next few posts, rather than sending a 32 page email to them all.

Lets start off with some quick hardware preferences and recommendations.

  • Nvidia is preferred over ATI for my gpu (graphics card)
    This is based on less than positive experiences with ATI drivers in both Linux and Windows environments.  Nvidia has never let me down, and especially for Linux machines, their driver support is unparalleled.
  • AMD is preferred over Intel for my cpu (processor)
    Despite my horrible experiences with ATI, my fondness of AMD (ATI’s daddy) grows by the day.  The price point for AMD over Intel is fantastic.  Also AMD is the ‘little man’ of the two and I enjoy supporting the low man on the totem pole, however their popularity, along with Linux is growing.  AMD chipsets have supported 64bit for generations at lower prices than the 32bit Intel alternatives.
  • Hiper is hands down my favorite psu (power supply)
    This fairly young company has gained my respect and love after real world tests in rack and box units.  I’ve accepted nothing less than their brand in the past several machines that I’ve built for myself and others.  Simply put, they spank the competition in performance and price.
  • The rest is less brand dependent.  Just check out the specifications and read all the user reviews that you can find.  Just because they have a badge of honor and a whole batch of pie charts on their own web site stating that they’re the best thing since the breakup of the Spice Girls, doesn’t mean that their product functions practically in the wild.
  • Desktop beats laptop.
    Don’t go throwing your laptop down the garbage chute, this is my personal preference.  I dig laptops as much as the next cat, but I can build two desktops for what you paid for one laptop with comparable components.  They might call it a frugal choice where you’re from, but in my neighborhood, we called it being a cheapskate.  If you’re going to play video games released lately, the odds of being able to build a laptop to handle the recommended system requirements and having it cost less than a car are slim.  A decent desktop gaming machine can easily be built on the cheap.
  • Dual Flat Screen monitors beat the pants off of Single CRT monitor.
    No matter what you do with your machine, more visual real estate is always better.  In this day and age it’s almost a necessity to have at least two flat screen monitors to remain functional and efficient.  Whether you’re a gamer, a visual designer, coder, administrator, or a little old granny watching Matlock reruns on the net, more is definitely more.  Not to mention that due to recent advances, the pricing for a couple of 22″+ monitors can’t be beat.
  • Once you know, you newegg.  Enough said.

As always, feel free to comment or ask questions about any of the ideas shared in this post.

Show Off Your Creations

So we’ve covered a few easy methods of getting the comic book / graphic novel / pop art style images from photographs.  So now it’s time to show off your creations that are based on the methods we’ve discussed thus far and suggest your methods for getting this look from your photographs.

Please leave comments and suggestions for future topics!

Thanks again for visiting, and we hope to see your creations and comments!

~matt

Let’s Talk About Torrents

Let’s just get right to it.  It’s sad that the BitTorrent protocol has become synonymous with illegal file sharing, pirating, etc.  As a huge Open Source Software and Linux proponent, I am a huge torrent user.  Several OSS/Linux applications and distributions are delivered via this file sharing protocol, and there is of course nothing illegal about that.  Like anything else in life, brilliant ideas, tools, and methods can be used to help or hinder.  {Insert Personal Bias Here}  There are two sides to every story.  Who are the real crooks?  The multibejillion dollar corporations and government agencies that work together to create laws to ensure cash flow and ultimately power continues in one direction vs. the virtual vigilantes and militias that consistently discover and publicize ways to thwart those attempts by bending and/or breaking those rules.  This debate both legally and morally could go on forever.  As a fairly open minded individual with trust issues lending a propensity to lean toward the fringe of liberal thought and conspiracy theory, I think that balance is what is needed.  Balance of these two groups will probably occur about three seconds after the Jews and Muslims become BFFs, aka high noon on the third of Never.

Let me take this time to remind you of the little blurb at the bottom of my site that says “all the information mentioned on this site is for educational purposes…so, don’t go and do something stupid, like break the law or your spleen, and come whining to me.”  Basically this is my way of saying that I do not endorse or encourage folks to take actions that would cause harm to themselves, their families, their friends, or to me, or my family, or my friends, etc.

There are, of course, several methods of masking or hiding your information while you surf the great ether.  Things like a proxy server, vpn, etc.  These can serve as a very practical method of keeping your identity from being stolen, or keeping the Feds off your doorstep.  Torrents are not exactly invulnerable themselves, however using tools like Tor (The Onion Router) coupled with Privoxy are quick and easy ways to avoid most of the issues.

The torrent files themselves (*.torrent) have been masked inside sound files, image files, QR code, etc.  There are a lot of great ways of hiding files inside of other files, however most of these methods aren’t for the average Joe User.

An old school classic is file fusion.

On Linux:

 cat picture.jpg file.torrent > result.jpg

On Windows:

 copy /b picture.jpg + file.torrent result.jpg

A simple tool for converting a standard *.torrent file into a *.png (portable network graphic) image file for distribution on blogs, forums, and photo sharing sites, hid​.im is even gaining some recognition for bringing entry level steganography to the masses.  Regardless of the use of these methods and tools, I find not only the technology behind them, but the mere need for such a technology quite interesting.

The use of torrent files has become increasingly easy, in fact most major Linux distributions not only include built in torrent clients, but are spread themselves by the use of this BitTorrent protocol.  Searching for torrents hasn’t been easier, simply visit mininova to get started.  There are also loads of Firefox search engine plugins and such for ease of integration.

Enjoy what the net has to offer, and as always, feel free to comment or ask questions about any of the ideas shared in this post.

How To Print And Play (PnP) A Classic Strategy Game (Stratego) With Inkscape

I was recently searching the web for some fun games and projects to keep my son and I occupied this summer, and stumbled onto an idea to combine the two. In my quest I found two really great sites that gave me inspiration and a new extension for Inkscape that will keep me busy for a while. After wandering through the forums a bit on Cartographers’ Guild, I was amazed at the artwork and intrigued to learn more about the games that some of these beautiful maps were created for. Thus, my addictive personality style has gotten the best of me, thanks to the wonderful artists on this site, and I blame them all!

That birthed a desire to create maps and game boards. Of course, you can’t adequately design a map or game board for a game style you’ve not played before, hence my discovery of BoardGameGeek (BGG). This little gem of a site has info on just about any board game you can think of, and several amazing ‘new to me’ games that you’ve probably never heard of. Not only is it one of the biggest and best game compendiums on the net, but it boasts a very active and knowledgeable member base. That said, I realized very quickly that I needed help. Either some form of intervention to wean me off of this new found interest, or some form of mentor to teach me everything there is to know about this stuff!

The closest thing to an actual mentor that I could find was Board Games with Scott. A couple members of BGG pointed me to this great site with video demonstrations and reviews of several board games. If you’re a newbie like myself, this site can’t be beat for getting a general feel for the type of games you’ll be into.

The members of both sites have been extremely friendly, helpful, and generally supportive (not one supported my request for intervention). So go check them both out, we all know how misery loves company.

That simple quest for a cure for summer boredom, led me to discover this groovy extension for Inkscape. We’ll be using it to create our Stratego game pieces, but it can be used to make trading cards, playing cards, even business cards and wedding invitations. Remember to thank Pelle Nilsson (ibe@pelle‑n.net) for creating this handy Python script, and saving me the time of having to reinvent the wheel myself.

Let’s get to it!

  1. Download and Install Inkscape (Windows .exe, Mac OS X .dmg, and source available on site. Also available through your Linux package manager.)
  2. Download and Install OpenOffice (Windows, Mac OS X, and source versions available on site. Also available through your Linux package manager.)
  3. Download and Install 7‑zip if you need a great open source file archive tool. (Windows, Mac OS X, and source versions available on site. Also available through your Linux package manager.)
  4. Download and Install I Boardgames Extensions via the instructions in the Zip archive.
  5. Download and extract my Stratego game template.
  6. Open the ‘stratego.svg’ file from my archive with Inkscape. What you’ll notice is that this is only half of a normal board. This was done on purpose as it was made to print on standard letter size (8.5″ x 11″) page. I have a dash scissor line guide marking the eventual center line of the board. This will help when aligning one half of the mirrored item correctly on the page so that it will blend seamlessly with the other (duplicate) page to complete the full board. You’ll also notice that by default, the ‘map’ Layer is selected. This is to allow you to immediately start creating the background image for your game board, without painting over the ‘grid’ and ‘pieces’ layers. Various versions of this game display various background images, from green fields and ponds to brimstone and lava pools. Take this time to get creative and get a basic background image drawn in Inkscape, imported from Gimp, the net, etc.

    Blank Template

    Blank Template

  7. With background complete, let’s open the ‘Layers’ palate. (Layer->Layers)
    Layer->Layers

    Layer->Layers

    Layers palate

    Layers palate

    If you’re new to the concept of layers in graphics software, think of a multi-paned window. The last/bottom layer in the list (labeled ‘map’ in my template file) is the white floor, and each subsequent item going up the list is a layer of glass that we have to look down through to see the white floor below. This will help you understand the placement of certain layers to get varied effects in both Gimp and Inkscape.You’ll notice two icons to the left of each layer name, an eye and a padlock. The eye displayed as ‘open’ means that the layer is currently visible, while ‘closed’ means that the layer is currently invisible. The padlock displayed as ‘open’ means that the layer is currently unlocked and full access to add/move/change/delete items on this layer is available, while ‘closed’ means that the layer is locked and therefore NO access is available.

  8. Hide the ‘grid’ and ‘map’ layers by clicking on the eye icon to the left of each layer name.  You’ll notice that your beautiful map and my less than beautiful grid have vanished. Relax, they’re just invisible, not deleted.  To the left of the printable page area, are two game pieces, one for each of the two (Red and Blue) armies. These are dummy templates with placeholders for text and images (editable in the ‘pieces.csv’ file) that you’ll use to customize your game pieces.
  9. Now it’s time to use some more of that creativity to select 12 images (65 x 65 px) to be displayed on your game pieces. Draw them in Inkscape, create them in Gimp, download them from your camera or the net, or simply use the demo images that I’ve included. Make sure that their final resolution is perfectly square (65 x 65, 256×256, etc.) or they won’t fit correctly onto the game pieces.
  10. Save your 12 images into the same folder where you extracted the contents of my game template archive. (name them whatever you wish, and use whatever file format you wish)
  11. Open the ‘pieces.csv’ file with OpenOffice. You’ll be prompted to select a method of file interpretation. Select the ‘Comma’ option and click the ‘OK’ button.

    Choose 'Comma' and click 'OK'

    Choose ‘Comma’ and click ‘OK

  12. In the A column (labeled ‘red’) are numbers representing the amount of pieces you want generated. These numbers are set to the default amounts used in a standard Stratego game, but they can be changed to fit custom game types.
  13. In the B column (labeled ‘name’) is text that will fill the ‘Name’ position on the dummy game piece templates as noted in Step 8. These names are set to the default rank names used in a standard Stratego game, but they can be changed to fit custom game types, or your own board themes, etc.
  14. In the C column (labeled ‘pic’) is the path and file name of the 65 x 65 images you selected in Step 9 and saved in Step 10. These file names are set to match the images included in my template archive file by default, but they can be changed to match the path and file names of your customized images. Make sure to include the correct path and file name here or the image placeholder will be empty on all of your game pieces.
  15. In the D column (labeled ‘rankid’) are alpha and numeric representations of the B column (labeled ‘name’) text, and they will fill the large ‘#’ position on the dummy game piece templates as noted in Step 8.
  16. The E column must remain unchanged for the iboardgames extension to work.
  17. The columns F‑I are merely direct copies of the values from columns A‑D and need to remain unchanged as well.
  18. Once you’ve modified columns A‑D in the ‘pieces.csv’ file to your liking, save it. (File->Save)

    File->Save

    File->Save

  19. Go back to your open Inkscape window and create your customized game pieces using the iboardgames extension. (Effects->Boardgames->Create Countersheet)

    Effects->Boardgames->Create Countersheet

    Effects->Boardgames->Create Countersheet

  20. Make sure the ‘Data File (CSV) field displays the exact path and file name to the ‘pieces.csv’ file that you saved in Step 18.
    Create Countersheet Settings

    Create Countersheet Settings

    You can select the ‘Live Preview’ option at the bottom to view a ‘Live Preview’ of your game pieces as they are generated onto their own layers and displayed within on the page.  If you’re satisfied with the result of the ‘Live Preview’ click on the ‘Apply’ button.  You will need to manually close the ‘Create Countersheet’ window by clicking on the ‘Close’ button.

  21. You’ll now notice that you have two new layers (labeled ‘Countersheet 1’ and ‘Countersheet 1 (back) respectively) in your ‘Layers’ palate. Both layers are visible and unlocked. In order to properly print off your sheets of game pieces and game board you’ll need to view only one layer at a time as you print.

    New 'Countersheet' Layers

    New ‘Countersheet’ Layers

  22. To print off your first sheet of game pieces, make sure that only the ‘Countersheet 1’ layer is visible.
    Screenshot-Layers (Shift+Ctrl+L)-1 Then print that visible layer. (File->Print)

    File->Print

    File->Print

  23. To print off your second sheet of game pieces, make sure that only the ‘Countersheet 1 (back)’ layer is visible.  Then print that visible layer. (File->Print)
  24. To print off both sheets (halves) of the game board, make sure that only the ‘grid’ and ‘map’ layers are visible.  Then print that visible layer twice. (File->Print)
  25. You’ll notice that part of my map painting (all Inkscape vector art) exceeded the bounds of the page. Relax, everything outside that boundary line will be eliminated from the final printed sheet.

    Over page border

    Over page border

  26. Grab a pair of scissors (or a ruler and box knife) and cut out your pieces and around your game board borders.
  27. Fold each of your pieces along the center dotted line to create a standing ‘sandwich board’ style game piece.
  28. Download a copy of the Stratego game rules from Ed’s Stratego Site, and enjoy!

These steps are for creating the standard number of game pieces and game board for the classic Stratego. Feel free to pick my template files apart and create your own templates for other varieties of Stratego and or other games altogether. Remember to post copies of your creations and comments here with us, and also with the fine folks at Cartographers’ Guild and BoardGameGeek.

Das ist Verboten!

I touched briefly on the fact that my uncles took time to drag me into a movie theater and expose me to all kinds of rock music when I was a kid, and I’m eternally grateful that they did. They did this in violation of my parents’ adopted rule that going to movie theaters and listening to rock music were both a sin of sorts. This was one of my first major ‘turn offs’ of organized religion. So many of the rules of religion aren’t from God but rather from man, and when you get man involved in this level of decision making, all forms of ‘badness’ usually ensues. Perhaps its from watching too many movies and the stereotypes that they contain, but when I hear rules and edicts being recited or read, the little voice that I hear in my head always has a harsh German accent. Even though this news was delivered by my mother’s musical soft voice, the voice that I hear in my head to this day is a German Al Pacino yelling “Das ist verboten!” I didn’t say I know proper German grammar, just that I hear this in my head.

One of the conditions of membership in my childhood church was that you were forbidden to go to movie theaters. When I protested and inquired as to the reason why “we don’t go to movies,” it was explained that other people would not know which movie we had been to the theater to watch, and they would naturally assume it was the most immoral title on the marquee. This brought numerous questions to mind. Can we still rent movies? Yes. What?! We can rent movies, but not watch the same movie at the theater? True. This made it abundantly clear that this rule was everything about appearance and nothing about moral fiber. One whole section of movies available from our friendly neighborhood video store were surely more indecent or offensive or taboo than any film that would find its way to the big screen of our local movie house. Who are these ‘other people’ that would make such an unfounded, unintelligent, uninformed judgment of my moral character, based on the current movie selection at the time? I was told that it was all about not tempting your brethren, meaning not doing something in front of them, that may be a personal point of temptation for them. However the mere ability to see me exiting a movie theater would require said ‘other person’ to also be at the theater. Ok, so don’t invite a recovering alcoholic out to a bar for drinks, I can understand the logic and mercy in that. So what is a recovering alcoholic doing at the bar, if you catch my drift. Seems to me that the ‘other person’ is the one who needs to be adding restrictions to their lifestyle, not me.

Rock music held a similar distaste for our local churchgoers. To the extent that some forms of music were deemed ‘evil.’ Really? Talk about a twisted set of double standards. Country music was of course a blessed, second only to Southern Gospel. Heavy Metal, Hard Rock, Rap, aka all forms of currently popular music, were off limits. Why? Uh, because we don’t care for that sort of music, or the element of people that it attracts. Great answer folks. These forms of music were of course chock full of demonic messages, demonstrated by telling folks what ‘evil’ phrase to listen for as they played the song backward. If these local church folk had the quality of understanding of basic psychology, and its use of planted imagery and guided thought patterns, that the televangelists/con-artists seemed to know all too well, they would understand that this was just a textbook mentalism trick. Give me a break.

This is where religion gets a bad stigma. When good olé church folk decide that they want to be in charge of God, and His true followers. This is nothing new. Find someone with an opinion and you have all the ingredients you need. My childhood church preached against smoking, drinking, and doing drugs as they were not healthy. After all our bodies are the temple of the Lord Jesus Christ. Would Jesus want to hang out in a temple that reeked of wine, smoke, and drugs? He certainly would not. I don’t remember any of these things being mentioned in the Bible. I do remember a pretty good list, seven in fact, of abominable sins. I don’t remember very many sermons, if any, on these items. Gluttony is one sermon topic that I’d love to hear an overweight preacher spend an hour or two on. I guess even Jesus can’t turn down a bigger temple to hang out it? I digress.

When all these arguments were made to various religious authorities and my parents, they were usually dismissed. This usually triggered the phase of calling ‘foul’ on various movies, songs, the characters and stories that they contained, as well as the writers, actors, musicians, etc. They would point to a certain person or situation and say, what would the Bible have to say about that? Usually these folks had temporarily lost their memory of almost every story in the Bible seconds before they uttered these words. I’ve read the Bible through several times since I began this quest for truth in high school, and let me say that you don’t have to read very far to get into some pretty ‘questionable’ people and situations. Most of the acts depicted in the first few books of the Old Testament, and the people who had carried them out were far worse than what you’d find in most music and movies, even by today’s standards. I don’t want to ruin the experience for you, but let me encourage you to read the Bible, even if you don’t hold to any form of Judeo-Christian faith. You’ll quickly realize that it’s not all rainbows and resurrections, and some of the most despicable characters turn out to be the heroes of Sunday School lessons gone by. Even as a skeptic, cynic, and overall ‘glass half empty’ type, I’m never disappointed with the mind boggling truth that I find within the pages of this underrated book, the Bible. Just read it for yourself before you go imposing all form of illogical restriction on those under your authority. They will thank you for it later.

Play Well

I know that I’ve touched on some of these thoughts before, but I feel the need to rehash some of them. I’ve given quite sizable commentary on what I believe, which is always subject to change. Subject to change? Yes. But beliefs are supposed to be firm, foundational, never changing. I think folks tend to confuse God with beliefs about God. God never changes, however my knowledge of and about God is constantly changing. Regardless of what you believe, ask yourself one question. Why? Why do I believe whatever it is that I believe? This is one of the simplest questions one can ask, yet the results of the search for an answer can seem quite complicated at times. It is a question that begs for truth, for honesty. Some people may not like the answers that they hear rattling around in their skulls. I know that I didn’t. Because that is what I’ve been told by others, because that is what those around me seem to believe, because of my experience. If these are the answers you hear, I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. It’s good that you’ve come to this realization sooner than later. However, you can’t “unhear” what your mind has just whispered, or perhaps yelled at you. Start thinking for yourself. Read things for yourself. Research things for yourself. Don’t just believe something because someone, even someone as brilliant and handsome and humble and delusional, as myself, tells you without checking it out yourself. I was surprised how many things in holy texts weren’t quite what I’d been told. Time to get to work.

Some folks find comfort in believing that their beliefs shape reality. While this is figuratively true, my thinking that you are an elephant doesn’t make it so. Likewise thinking God is this or that doesn’t make it so, either. This leads me back to my “God is unlimited” statement from earlier. As such, we can do nothing but react to God. I find it funny when folks say that they just hope that God’s Will will be done. No offense folks, but if God is unlimited like the Bible teaches, God’s Will isn’t a concern for us to worry our pretty little heads with. That is to say, it’s going to happen whether we hope or wish or want it to or not. Being “in God’s Will” seems to me to be a “Get On or Get Out of the Way” scenario, if there ever was one. God initiates everything, we initiate nothing. We merely react. We can fight it, put our will against God’s, but that’s a bit like putting an infant in the ring with George Foreman, good luck with that.

Now let’s have a quick chat about sin. Sin has many connotations, and has been defined in various ways by various people. My definition for sin is “not giving to God, that which is God’s.” So what is God’s anyway? Everything. As the only unlimited being in the game, he has dibs on everything. So every time we don’t give God anything, it is sin. Simple isn’t it. Now execution of this simplicity is the not so easy part of the game. We were born into sin, and therefore struggle against our physical nature when we try to give God what he has coming to Him. We will fail, just a sure as we’re born (literally in this case). This is where things like grace, mercy, etc. come into the mix. God, being the only unlimited player, and thus knowing that He is the only unlimited player, has no hard time understanding that we’re going to hose stuff up constantly. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but does expect us to learn and make an effort. More work. There are two ways to look at this constant requirement of work. First, had Adam and Eve been perfect, or been able to follow one little rule, we wouldn’t be in this mess. We wouldn’t be in this mess because it’s probable that had they left that one tree alone, the “be fruitful and multiply” charge may never have been given. Also, it was after this major, yet simple, “Doh!” moment that God told them that work was the new play. If you two had just listened and obeyed one little rule, you’d still be in the fun house, no work, all play. However, now that you’ve shown your inability to leave stuff well enough alone, you get to enjoy this not so fun house, where everything is going to take work, nothing will be effortless, and most of the good things in life will come via discomfort. Enjoy!

After the first two got booted from a virtual heaven on earth, folks have been born into sin. Some say, “That’s not fair! Shouldn’t I get a chance in the garden first, too?” I hear you, I get you, I feel this same way too at times. The best I can come up with is this. If I were God, which we all know I’m not, I’d think, “Ok I made these two with my own two hands and they got themselves evicted from paradise on earth, surely the products of their level of intelligence won’t do any better than this.” We haven’t produced anyone yet that hasn’t managed to do the same or worse, so I think that was a safe judgment call on God’s part. Back to the point, born into sin. Born “into” sin. This simple word led me to ask another simple yet perspective changing question. Am I a physical being having a spiritual experience, or a spiritual being having a physical experience. This wasn’t an easy one for me to ask. In fact I wish I hadn’t asked it at all, but alas it was too late. Most holy texts promote the latter, whereas I find the former more comfortable. Comfortable doesn’t mean it’s true though, so here we go again. This is a concept I’ve heard my whole life, yet never gave much thought to. In fact, I always got the creeps around those “we’re just passing through” people. However the more and more I read for myself, the harder and harder time I have with maintaining my comfort level. The Bible makes this physical reality, this life, this experience seem like just the beginning. If you’ve played video games in the past 10 years, you’re familiar with the “Training” level of a game. For example, before I could adequately play and enjoy the Playstation 2 version of the Spider-Man: The Movie game, I had to complete a training level. In this specific case the training narration was beautifully hosted by Bruce Campbell, who I personally find quite humorous and entertaining. This is what this physical life is akin to. This life that we know and love, are merely the training level of a bigger, better, never ending game. The big difference being that once the training level is over, you can’t go back and keep trying. You get judged on your performance, and either allowed to play the best game ever with all the cheats unlocked, or to a really horrible hell of a game that is everything you hated about the training level multiplied by infinity. The full game is infinite in possibility and duration, so let that help determine which game you want to play after the training level is over. OK, so we know that we’re on the Training level of existence, so where do you go for training? This is what church is for, or at least what it should be for. How do one make sure that one gets involved with a church and not a cult? As a general rule of thumb, if you’re taking part in some form of service, ceremony, ritual, religious practice and you think, “I think this might be a cult,” you’re probably in a cult. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… That said, it’s not always easy to find a good church. Good Luck and Play Well.

Conflict

A Special Education teacher, who would occasionally give me things to ponder, spends her day with the section of our society that doesn’t fit the mold. She told me of a student whose hobby was writing down physical addresses. This is what he did for fun, to pass the time. This is much more interesting than the gobs of kids who like to watch TV or play video games. This is yet another reason I could not do her job. The roles would be reversed. I’d spend all day asking the students questions, in an attempt to understand their perspectives, rather than teaching them the subject assigned. Why would I spend my time learning their perspective as opposed to teaching them the world’s perspective? I’m still not sure that the world’s perspective is the correct perspective. Perhaps they, like children, have a better understanding of God than the rest of us.

As a theater student, I was researching for the role of a man with multiple personality disorder. I was allowed to visit an institution that housed several individuals with this disorder, among others. The time I spent learning from these visits was very well spent, not only in finding voice for my characters, but more importantly in finding answers to questions that I didn’t have the sense to ask. Perspective and perception are interesting things. Our perception is shaped largely by our perspective. What if the perspective of society at large is not the correct one? Surely we are aware that we can only see one side of a coin at any given moment. What if the side that we’ve been basing all our logic, science, and even faith on, is the wrong side? Or more disturbingly, the wrong coin? My definition of true wisdom in life is the ability to see the correct side of the correct coin. Perhaps this is why so many religious texts speak of the simplicity of enlightenment, and its being available to a child. Perhaps we spend so much time arguing about our interpretation of what is on our side of the coin, that we fail to realize that we’re looking at the wrong side, or even the wrong coin.

One of the gentlemen I had the pleasure of visiting with was there of his own volition, namely because he could not function in society because of his difference of perception. He was an extremely intelligent man, and while quirky, very able to communicate with me. He took nothing for granted. Not rules of social behavior and psychology, or laws of physics. He didn’t trust that gravity was a law, to him it was simply the most probable outcome. Meaning it wasn’t a constant, it was simply the only pattern we’d observed thus far, and it could change tomorrow. Just because it’s behaved this way in the past, does not require it to behave the same in the future. This way of thinking would sometimes paralyze him to the extent that he wondered if his senses could be trusted. I see the floor, but I know that my eyes can be fooled, do I step out of bed? He had me hold my hand out in front of me, and then focus on his face, through the gaps between my fingers. He then asked how many fingers I saw, to which I answered five. Wrong. He asked me to look again. After a moment I realized that I was indeed seeing ten. I was disregarding the duplicate image of my hand created by the simple fact that I have two eyes in two different places and those images do not always line up directly on top of each other. This is the way he sees the world, without filters. If he could get beyond his senses, he would then question his own memory. Is my memory a true verbatim record of the day’s events, or was it also dependent on my point of view and previous experience. What if my memory of the rules of nature yesterday has been tainted or skewed by the experience in my dream last night, can I truly trust my knowledge of the rules enough to make sound judgments today? This is what I call analysis paralysis. The inability to move forward due to the constant analysis of the ever changing world around us.

It’s been said that the human brain processes 400,000,000,000 (four hundred billion) bits of information per second of which we are only aware of 2,000 (two thousand) bits of information per second. Take a second to think about that. Think about all the information that is hitting our brain, that we’re not aware of, that we’re missing or skipping over. This could be a positive thing as if we over analyzed the information, without filtering some out, we may never move forward. However, we could also be filtering out the secrets to the universe. It’s also said that we form these pattern of thought, even actual neural pathways in our brains. There have been folks who having suffered brain damage in a certain part of their brain, have been able to retrain their brains to find alternative routes around the damaged pathways. If this is true, what would happen if we started to retrain our brains to form new pathways, new routes from point A to point B. Perhaps we could stumble upon new scenery that we’re unaware of. I know that I am a creature of habit and pattern. It usually takes some outside force acting in my life to get me to change my route to work, order of body parts to wash in the shower, etc. Routine is my friend. In the same way that choosing a different route to work may bring to my awareness a new restaurant or store, perhaps choosing a new route of thought may bring to my awareness a new experience, or perception of my world. This kind of thought alteration could be good or bad, that’s the risk. I could stumble onto a cure for cancer, or end up drinking the Kool-Aid with a few of my new brethren. Is it worth the risk? If so, how does one begin this journey? Apart from dosing myself with Lysergic acid diethylamide #25, how does one shift this neural pathway off of the expressway and onto the scenic route? What could we accomplish if we were able to integrate and use the entirety of the information that our brains receive? Perhaps this is what spirituality is.

As a natural skeptic concepts of philosophy and religion don’t come easy to me. Thus my struggle with any natural acceptance and integration of religion into my life, or my life into religion. I like to see things, hear things, feel things, taste things, smell things, and then believe based on my sensory experience. This is ‘natural’ to me. The concept of faith, even in definition is the exact opposite of this. Faith is usually defined as a belief in the absence of evidence. So what is one like me to do? This is where I follow the ‘better to be safe than sorry’ principle. I choose to believe in the absence of evidence, simply because I don’t trust my ability to focus on the correct bits of information. I can’t fully trust my senses to accurately represent my experience. I can’t fully trust that I am currently using my senses and the brain that processes all their stimuli correctly, or in the right direction. Perhaps there is 100% irrefutable evidence being displayed for me, however, it is being filtered from my understanding. Filtered by my neural nets being in the wrong configuration, taking the wrong route to work and therefore missing the display. This is where my natural skepticism, meets my trust issues, meets my love of science, meets my fascination with philosophy and religion. The part that bothers people is that this is my ‘normal’ process of being.

How To Make Your Pictures Look Like Comic Book / Graphic Novel Art With Inkscape

As I stated in a previous article, I have been all over the web trying to find a way in which a no-talent-hack, such as myself, could possibly create any semblance of what one could call ‘art.’   As a firm believer in Open Source Software, I wanted to find a way (preferably a good way), to create the comic book/graphic novel look I wanted with my photos.  I wanted to find a fast and easy method of reproducing the same overall end effect.  We are going to be using a great Open Source vector graphic alternative to Adobe Illustrator called Inkscape.  This is yet another simple formula I use.

  1. Download Inkscape (Windows .exe, Mac OS X .dmg, and source available on site.  Also available through your Linux package manager.)
  2. Install Inkscape (via Windows .exe, Mac OS X .dmg, per install instructions in the source archive, or via your Linux package manager.)
  3. Choose the photograph you are wanting to use.  It is best to use a high resolution photograph (at least 1024×768, at least 300dpi).  The photograph used in this example (of a Girl with a Styrofoam swimming board) was 4,368 × 2,912, however it has been scaled down for display purposes.
  4. Open Inkscape.   (a blank image will be created automatically, but it will be replaced in the next step with the photograph)
  5. Open the photograph you chose earlier. (File->Open)

    File->Open

    File->Open

  6. Then browse to find and open your photograph.
  7. First, we want to draw a path around the focus object in the photograph, or the portion of the photograph that you want to apply this effect to.  You can use any of the available tools (IE rectangle, ellipse, star, pencil, pen, calligraphy, etc), however I find that in most cases the pencil or pen tool work the best.  For this tutorial we’ll use the pencil tool for it’s speed and ease of use.
    Pencil Outline

    Pencil Outline

    You will want to make sure and fully connect and complete the outline by ending the outline directly on the initial starting point.  This point is represented by a small square that will turn red when you’re properly over it. (see above)
  8. Next, we’ll want to fill in the outlined area with a Flat color. (Object->Fill and Stroke)
    Object->Fill and Stroke

    Object->Fill and Stroke

  9. Select the ‘Flat color’ button.
    Flat Color

    Flat Color

  10. For easy visibility, set the Alpha channel to a value of approximately 150.
    Alpha = 150

    Alpha = 150

  11. With the ‘Selector tool’ we need to drag a selection box completely surrounding the two portions (original photo & shaded area) of our image.
    Drag Selection tool over entire image

    Drag Selection tool over entire image

  12. This part of the process is where you’ll notice the effect start to take shape.  It uses the SIOX implementation within the Trace Bitmap function of Inkscape. (Path->Trace Bitmap)
    Path->Trace Bitmap

    Path->Trace Bitmap

  13. Ensure that the Trace Bitmap settings are as below. (defaults settings + SIOX foreground selection + Remove background + ‘Colors’ selected)
    Trace Bitmap settings

    Trace Bitmap settings

  14. You’ll want to play around with the ‘Scans’ value to meet the complexity that you want.  Choosing a lower value will result in lower color complexity, and a higher value will result in higher color complexity.  Use the ‘Update’ button to update the preview.  See the preview examples below. A ‘Scans’ value of ‘32’ was used for this tutorial.  Once you have the scan setting as you wish, click the ‘OK’ button.
    Scans = 8

    Scans = 8

    Scans = 16

    Scans = 16

    Scans = 32

    Scans = 32

  15. Once the process is complete, you will need to close the ‘Trace Bitmap’ window.
  16. After closing the ‘Trace Bitmap’ window, use the ‘Selector tool’ to select the ‘shaded area’ (from Step 7).
    Select the 'shaded area'

    Select the ‘shaded area’

    Delete this selection using the ‘Delete’ keyboard key (or Edit->Delete).

  17. Next use the ‘Selector tool’ to select the original portion of the image as below.
    Select the original image

    Select the original portion

    Delete this selection using the ‘Delete’ keyboard key (or Edit->Delete).

  18. That’s it!  Now simply save this remaining image as an ‘Inkscape SVG’ and it will be a truly Scalable Vector Graphic for your collection or comic book/graphic novel.  As a side note, the ‘Scans’ from Step 15 (minus the alpha) created a ‘Group’ of objects that comprise the final SVG image.  This means that you can ‘Ungroup’ them (Object->Ungroup) and select them individually for direct manipulation of colors and shapes etc.
    Resulting SVG image

    Resulting SVG image

Please leave comments and suggestions for future topics!