October 29, 2015
by Craig Lambert
Besides having been told by my dentist that it’s good for me, Free, Libre, and Open-Source Software offers everything that I (and most people, I’m sure) need to do the things they need to do with a computer. We should probably start by figuring out what this type of software is.
Free software (free as in beer) means you don’t have to pay for it, just like a free app on your smartphone. Libre is more along the lines of the French or Spanish meaning of “free” meaning freedom (free as in speech). Many free software advocates are on the side of the former. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) supports the latter. Most of the software I use is open-source, which I take to be a combination of the two (pedants would almost certainly take issue with that, but that’s how I see it). That means that the program is free to use and the source code (the program in human-readable form) is freely available to anyone to study, modify, and use or distribute in its modified form as long as it’s in compliance with the applicable license (GPL, for example). Frankly, I’ve never done that. My coding skills have improved, but I haven’t found the need to fix anything. It’s nice to know, however, that if I found something I wanted changed in a program, I could change it for my use, tell the developers that I had found something that needed fixing, or fork the project (take the original code, add my changes, and offer the new version to the open-source community as long as I do it in a way the license permits).
Free (as in beer) is definitely a reason to explore the software available to the FLOSS community. The software ranges from simple utilities to full office suites (LibreOffice, for example), photo manipulating programs (GIMP, a direct competitor to Photoshop), and all sorts of other things. Not all free software is open-source. My circuit simulator of choice (at work and home) is LTspice, a very closed-source offering from Linear Technology. The source code is held very close to the vest, but the program is offered for free to anyone who wants it, and it has a huge, very well-moderated Yahoo Groups community. It is written for Windows, but runs at least as well under WINE in Linux (more on that in a later post). Several other closed-source and open-source simulators are available. I haven’t looked at them in years, but I will shortly, and I’ll let you know my opinions.
We’ll start, however, with open-source software that would be of interest to writers. I’ll tell you about what I’ve used, what I’ve considered, but not used, and which of the things I’ve used or wanted to use are available on multiple platforms (Linux, Apple, and Windows).
I’m a pantser (a seat-of-the-pants writer, rather than an outliner), so I dove into my story-telling with OpenOffice (which has since been forked to LibreOffice). After the second chapter, with new characters and plot twists occurring to me that wouldn’t appear until much later in the book, I looked for a way to keep everything straight. I used a mind-mapping tool called VYM (View Your Mind), and I’ll describe my results with that in an upcoming post. I also, quite a bit later, found Calligra Author, which is described as an “Author Tool”. I haven’t used it yet, but I plan to take it for a spin with a short story just to see how it works.
When I finished the first draft of Children of the Ice (including multiple revisions along the way; some writing coaches say that’s a Bad Thing, others say it’s the way they work), I used Calibre to convert the LibreOffice document to both Nook and Kindle formats. The Kindle conversion came out well. The Nook version had a blank line between paragraphs (like this blog; good for blogs, bad for books). At the time I couldn’t find a way to fix that. I’ll try again with the current version of the software.
I printed a few copies of each of several versions of the manuscript, using GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to edit various free images I found online. I’m probably not going to review GIMP. It’s cross-platform (written for Linux, runs in Windows under Cygwin (a Linux-to-Windows translator, just as WINE is a Windows-to-Linux translator; okay, those are both simplifications. The upshot is that GIMP can be made, without much effort, to run in Windows)). The program is huge and I’ve used only a few very basic tools, and I’m not qualified to offer a tutorial or review.
Now that we’ve gotten the exposition out of the way, check back soon for the next installment, in which I’ll dive into open-source software for authors. My plan at this point is to write a story in Calligra, using as many of its features as I can.