Thursday, June 30, 2011

DraftSight part 2 - really good CAD software, for free

I'm sure advertisers hate me. I ignore commercials on TV. I skip over ads in magazines and newspapers, except to snort with disgust at the really objectionable ones. I change the radio station when the commercial breaks get too long or too stupid. And I actually close web pages (and they go on my personal blacklist!) when the ad content starts taking over the page.

And I never, ever, click through on an adlink, which is kind of funny since I have AdSense enabled on my blog.

That is, I never clicked through on an adlink until today.

I was searching for electronic parts on the web, when I saw an ad banner that said something like "DraftSense - a 2D AutoCAD alternative for free," or something like that. AutoCAD is one of the big three CAD systems today. In fact, AutoCAD may be the king of the mountain. AutoCAD is a great program, and I've used and enjoyed it in previous lives. It wasn't the first CAD program, nor was it the first CAD program to dominate the market, but it has become the standard against which all other CAD programs are judged, and its DWG and DXF formats have become an industry standard.

And it's expensive. Oh, it's worth every penny, if you can afford it. Prices start at $1,180 for AutoCAD LT 2012, the lightweight version.

About ten years ago, give or take a few, an alliance of developers set out to make a free alternative to AutoCAD. Their efforts spun off several alternative packages, four of which are documented in an article at Desktop Engineering. The latest alternative is a package called DraftSight, sold by Dassault Systèmes through their Solidworks subsidiary. The beta version was released last summer. The official Windows version was released in February 2011. The official OS X and Linux versions were released in March 2011.

(Before DS acquired them in 1997, Solidworks had their own AutoCAD alternative, called "DWGEditor" and later renamed "2D Editor". DraftSight can be perceived as a direct competitor to 2D Editor, although Solidworks says that they'll keep selling both packages "for the time being.")

(Dassault Systèmes also has a heavyweight 3D CAD package called CATIA, created in 1977 to make airplanes. You knew the name "Dassault" sounded familiar, didn't you?)

There's a lot to like about DraftSight. First, it's free. Like the air you breathe. (We'll cover the exceptions to that "free" part in a little bit.)

Second, it's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Version limitations are specified on the downloads page.

Third, it has a very familiar user interface. If you've used AutoCAD, AutoCAD LT, or ARES, you should feel right at home when you start it up.

Fourth, it is indeed full-featured. The list of features includes ... well, go have a look. It still has the command line for those who want it. It's infinitely customizable: aliases, menus, keyboard shortcuts, mouse shortcuts, toolbars - it's got it all. It reads and writes files in DWG and DXF formats (all versions from R12 through 2010 - maybe through 2012 by now), and it exports files in PDF format. And it supports add-ons.

Dassault Systèmes created a user community for DraftSight, with access to all sorts of helps, including video tutorials. They also created a 186-page "Getting Started" guide. Ouch.

Reviewers love DraftSight, and so do most users . One reviewer said DraftSight is equivalent to AutoCAD LT, and that he prefers it over Solidworks 2D. (One user said he'd keep using Visio because it's "simpler." Eh.)

DraftSight is small and fast. It's only 47 MB to download, and after installation it only takes 160 MB of disk space. It starts up fast, and it loads drawings fast.

Here are the exceptions to "free":

First of all, only the standalone license is free. That is, if you want to install it on a server and run it on multiple workstations on a network, you'll have to buy a network license. This is all spelled out in the end-user license agreement (EULA), which you really should read before buying or installing any software. The network license also includes telephone support and other goodies, though, so if you're a business it may be worth your while.

Second, there's no LISP capability in the free version. Like AutoCAD, DraftSight lets you write macros and custom programs using a dialect of LISP. In order to use LISP, you'll need to buy the API (application programming interface) package.

Third, all of the add-ons - well, let's say most of the good ones - cost money. That's not a bad thing, just an acknowledgement of reality.

Fourth, "free" is not synonymous with "open source." You can't get the source code. Dassault Systèmes owns it, and they're not letting go of it. That's okay; if you really want to mess with the software, you can buy the API instead.

Why the exceptions shouldn't bother you:

Dassault Systèmes can offer DraftSight for free because they make all their money on these extras. Oh, don't worry; DraftSight is immensely useful and powerful all by itself, without costing you a nickel. Most individual and sole-proprietor users won't need any of that extra stuff. But it's all there if you want it.

So, Zyzmog, do you like it?

I've only played with it a little bit. I'll post updates here as I gain more experience with it. But from what I've seen so far, I like it.

To download DraftSight, click on this link.

DraftSight - really good CAD software, for free

I'm a bit late to the party on this one. Better late than never, I guess.

If you've been looking for a free or low-cost alternative to AutoCAD, you can stop looking. DraftSight, a new 2D CAD program that natively (that means without breathing hard) reads and writes DWG and DXF files, is now available for free from Dassault Systèmes Solidworks.

It's available for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux operating systems. And it truly is free. With some asterisks.

Here are the important asterisks.
* DraftSight is comparable to AutoCAD LT, the lightweight version of AutoCAD.
* Only the standalone license is free. That means each computer has to have its own copy. If you want to run it from a network server, you'll have to purchase a network license.
* No LISP support in the free version. If you want LISP capability, or support for all your AutoLISP macros, you'll have to purchase the API.
* It's free, but not open source. Eh. I can live with it.

Those are all the asterisks I can think of. DraftSight has gotten great reviews on the Web. I just downloaded it and tried out some rudimentary functions, and I like it so far. If I end up not liking it, I'll edit this entry and tell you what's not to like.

Download it here. Read about it here. I'll tell you more about it in my next entry.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

J.K. Rowling, the next chapter

In a previous entry, I addressed the question of whether J.K. Rowling would ever write again. My opinion was, more or less, "she doesn't need to, she said she's not going to, she's already doing some pretty cool stuff, and I wish her well in whatever she does."

In an update at the end of that entry, I added a link to a mysterious countdown. If you click on the link now, you will be taken to JKR's announcement of the opening of Pottermore.

Pottermore is a new JKR enterprise, aimed at getting even more kids to read and to enjoy reading, using her Harry Potter books as the vehicle to get there. As far as I can tell, it doesn't cost a user anything to join up. The official opening date is October, but a lucky few will gain early access to Pottermore before then.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bob Pease killed in car crash

Bob Pease, the analog design engineer who taught many of us the really important parts of analog circuit design, was killed in a one-car accident on Saturday. Done too soon.

Bob was a colorful personality. He was 100% nerdy engineer and yet at the same time he did not fit the nerdy engineer stereotype at all. He was a master teacher and a master showman. His knowledge - no, his wisdom - was matched only by his charisma and his ebullience.

Those who met him in person were very lucky people. Those who knew him as a friend and colleague were even luckier. The rest of us are just lucky to have read his words.

Here's the obituary in EDN.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Will J. K. Rowling ever write again?

A Fandango article this morning reported on an interview with J. K. Rowling, in which she said (yet again) that she's not going to continue the Harry Potter saga. After being pressed relentlessly by the interviewer, she ventured that maybe she would revisit the Hogwarts world, but not for "another ten years" or so. That was enough to satisfy the interviewer.

The article didn't explicitly state this next point, but the flavor of the article prompted a string of reader comments, which asserted and debated the following hypotheses.
- JKR has an obligation to keep the Harry Potter / Hogwarts story going.
- JKR cannot, and will not, be successful at writing anything else.

By now, the JKR story is as famous as the Harry Potter story, and I don't need to go into the details about how she wrote the first book of the famous series. But I have a few opinions of my own.

1. Rowling is a damn good writer. Or she has a damn good editor. Or both. This was crystal clear in her first Harry Potter book. Her writing either stayed at the high level of the first book or improved as the series grew. I wish I could write as well as she does.

(Unfortunately, the books also got fatter. That happens to all successful authors. It also happens to successful automobile brands, mobile phones, and restaurant menus. I would like to read a successful author who can keep their follow-on works as slim and as powerful as their original bestseller.)

2. Rowling is extremely intelligent, and knows a lot about subjects other than the wizarding world. Unlike the loud and vacuous celebrities who appear increasingly stupid every time they open their mouths in public, JKR has chosen her words carefully, limited her public engagements, and never shown every card in her hand. But don't sell her short. She is not a one-trick pony.

3. Related to that second point, I think that JKR is capable of writing in any genre of fiction - or on any nonfiction subject - that she chooses. I would expect her future works to be readable and enjoyable, even compelling. I, for one, would not restrict my expectations of her future writing to Hogwarts, wizardry, or Harry Potter and his friends. I would pay good money to read what else she has to say about the world at large.

4. JKR is now very wealthy. She can spend the rest of her life sailing the world, gambling in Monte Carlo, or relaxing on a private estate and throwing parties for Radcliffe and company, if that's what she wants to do. She has no obligation to do anything, for anyone. And I say more power to her.

5. JKR has chosen a more private lifestyle, concentrating on her family and on a small number of charitable causes. Her fame, her wealth, and her wisdom (and prudence) put her in a unique position in the world. Lucky lady. Absent the fame, I'd like to be in that situation someday.

Edit, June 16, 2011: I'm not sure what this is about, but this link was the countdown to, and eventually the announcement of, Pottermore, an online experience for Rowling fans from all over the world.

Edit, February 23, 2012: A book for adults is in the works. She announced it today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

ProFlightSimulator is now Earth Flight Sim - and still a scam

Wow, that didn't take long. Thanks to the FlightGear community's hounding of ProFlightSimulator, and its subsequent exposure as a scam and a fraud (yes, a fraud- numerous cases of them refusing to honor their 60-day money-back guarantee), ProFlightSim has gone underground ...

... and re-emerged as "Earth Flight Sim." I told you earlier that trying to eradicate a scam of this sort was like playing Whack-A-Mole, and this is a perfect example. What makes this one noteworthy is the speed with which PFS disappeared and took on a new identity.

(Actually, PFS didn't disappear at all, and neither did its previous identity, "Flight Pro Sim". They're both still out there, trawling for suckers.)

Another thing that makes this one noteworthy, and insidious, is the similarity of the name "Earth Flight Sim" to "Google Earth Flight Simulator," which could cause confusion for Web users searching for the latter and finding a mess of links to the former. In the Real World, companies sue each other when product names get too similar like this.

This next point isn't noteworthy, but it's always worth remembering: Earth Flight Sim is nothing more than Pro Flight Simulator repackaged, which is nothing more than Flight Pro Sim repackaged, which is nothing more than FlightGear repackaged. And FlightGear is free. Why would you pay a single penny for something you can get for free?

Like its slimy predecessors, the Earth Flight Sim bundle includes many add-ons and extensions to FlightGear, without the original programmers' permission. Its website includes copyrighted images and videos which were recorded using FlightGear (and in some cases, Microsoft's commercial Flight Sim products) and have been appropriated and used by EFS, without permission.

Earth Flight Sim's "Contact Us" page is empty right now, except for the notation "Coming Soon ...". I would guess that Charlie Taylor, Dan Freeman, Michael Ortiz and Eriz Cremonti is trying to decide what to call himself this time. "Whois" reports that the domain name is registered to Cody Moya, of Short Hills NJ, but most domain names nowadays are registered to a third party, not the entity that actually uses the domain name.

Once again, my recommendation is that you download FlightGear for free and enjoy it. If you want to spend money on FlightGear, then buy FlightGear's own DVDs. Don't waste your money on scams and frauds like ProFlightSimulator and Earth Flight Sim.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

ProFlightSimulator revisited: still a scam

It's been over six months since I exposed ProFlightSimulator as a scam. Today, in a brief moment of boredom, I did a Google search for "ProFlightSimulator." Wow.

First of all, the entity behind PFS has snapped up the .org and .net domain names so that nobody else could use them, and has used them to push the product.

Second, they have created domain names like "proflightsimulatorreviews" and "proflightsimulatorreviewz", where they have posted bogus reviews from bogus users, in an effort to spoof the search engines' rating systems and boost their ratings.

Ah, but third, Web Of Trust has branded the main PFS site, and several of their shill sites, with their lowest rating: a red circle. PFS (and the entity behind it) is now officially a pariah.

Web Of Trust is a browser add-on which rates every web page you visit and every search engine entry on four characteristics: Trustworthiness, Vendor Reliability, Privacy, and Child Safety. If WOT gives a web site low marks or a red alert, that means it's a dangerous website, and you'd best stay away..

Granted, not everybody in the world uses (or even knows about) WOT. Most non-WOT users will blindly click on the links and get themselves in trouble. But WOT's ratings are based on user input, and therefore they represent a good cross-section of Web users; therefore, it's reasonable to conclude that most of the Web by now realizes that ProFlightSimulator and all of its bogus reviews are nothing but a load of kangaroo manure.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Sony Hacks: A Morality Tale for the New Century

American Public Media aired an interesting story yesterday, comparing the recent storm of hack attacks Sony has endured to the storm of hack attacks Microsoft has, interestingly, not endured.

It all started back in January 2010, when a whiz kid named George Hotz announced that he had found a way to hack into Sony's Playstation 3 console. This was considered quite an achievement for several reasons, first and foremost because the PS3 was the last piece of contemporary game hardware that hadn't been hacked yet.

(For the computerly disinclined, think of "hacking" as finding a secret passage into an electronic fortress, sneaking past all the guard dogs and booby traps and gaining access to the fortress' interior, allowing the hacker to snoop around and to do whatever he wants while inside.

Contrary to popular perceptions, "hacking" is not a malicious or destructive activity in itself. However, some hackers - such as the Chinese hackers who got into Google and hijacked hundreds of personal Gmail accounts - commit malicious acts once they gain entry by hacking. But branding all hackers as vandals, thieves or criminals, makes no more sense than branding all young Muslim men as terrorists. Or all lawyers as crooks. Or all used-car salesmen as ... well, let's not push it.)

The PS3 console was considered hackproof, secure, even hard -- hard as in "armored and bulletproof," not as in "difficult." That's part of what made it a challenge. Hotz announced in 2009 that he was going to hack it, and then he kept an online blog of his progress. He certainly didn't do it in secret.

There was no doubt in Hotz' mind that he could successfully do the hack. After all, he was the first person to hack the iPhone, and he only stopped hacking iOS devices because "it's not as fun as it used to be" (quoting his Wikipedia entry).

Sony responded to Hotz' hack by changing the programming in the PS3. Hotz then hacked the reprogrammed PS3. Hotz and Sony played cat and mouse with the hardware for 12 months, until January 2011, when Sony took Hotz to court in a civil lawsuit.

Hotz' final hack of the PS3 resulted in what's called a "jailbreak." (If you followed my "hacking" analogy above, you can think of a "jailbreak" as freeing the princess trapped inside the electronic fortress. For example, when the iPhone first came out, it could only be used on an AT&T network. Jailbreaking the iPhone allowed it to be used on any cellular network.)

With a jailbroken PS3, users could write their own games and play them on the PS3, which would be a good thing, and they could freely copy commercial PS3 games for other users, which would be a bad thing. Sony's strategy for the PS3 did not include surrendering power over their hardware to the users, and they decided that they needed to enforce that strategy. However, in doing so, they made a huge tactical mistake. To protect their strategy, they could have hired Hotz. They should have hired Hotz. Instead, they sued him. Wikipedia contains the interesting notation that "Sony had to take George Hotz to court" (italics mine).

The worldwide hacker community is huge. It numbers in the millions, I would guess. It's very loosely organized. What it lacks in organization, it makes up in cohesiveness. You could say that its organizational model is that of an anarchic meritocracy. This community is very protective of its members, especially the ones at the top of the heap. When Sony fired its big guns at one of the hackers' own, the hackers fired back.

The result was the endless steam of hack attacks Sony has endured since January, starting with an attack by a group calling itself "Anonymous," and continuing into last week, when Sony's online resources were looking pretty battered.

Contrast this with what happened when hackers got into Microsoft's Kinect. Like the Sony PS3, Microsoft never intended for users to do anything with the Kinect other than play the authorized games. But to any geek, even this geek, the Kinect hardware is fascinating. A geek could drive himself giddy thinking of all the cool things the Kinect could be used for, besides controller-free, multiplayer DDR games - heck, way beyond any kind of games. For example, the Kinect could be used for remotely manipulating C3P0-style robots in radioactive environments.

Yeah. Well, in November 2010, a company called Adafruit offered a prize to the first person to hack the Kinect - more specifically, the first person to produce an open-source driver for the Kinect. It took less than a month for a winner to emerge. Initially, Microsoft said "No, not a good idea; we won't like that." But cooler heads (curious heads? interested heads?) inside Microsoft lobbied for an alternative position. Microsoft's own Alex Kipman, speaking officially for Microsoft, appeared on NPR's Science Friday and basically said, "Well, the hardware wasn't actually 'hacked.' They just monkeyed with the USB interface. And we left that open on purpose, so people could do this."

Oookay, maybe they did that on purpose, and maybe they didn't. But MS's approval of Kinect hacking activities has led to all sorts of interesting applications for the Kinect - applications that do in fact go way beyond dance games. Go search the Web for "Kinect hack" for some examples. There exists an active community of indie Kinect developers, supported in varying degrees (both officially and unofficially) by Microsoft people. The Kinect is still alive, it hasn't turned into a monster, and its proprietor, rather than defending itself from revenge attacks by the hacker community, has to some degree welcomed them to its table.

It's a pity that Sony didn't have the foresight that Microsoft did in this case. Faced with nearly identical challenges, both companies reacted differently, and ... well, the Law of the Harvest is still true: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Afternote 1: It appears that I have become a reluctant Microsoft fan. I used to be very anti-MS, back when MS looked like Pinky and the Brain, trying to take over the world and doing a very clumsy job at it. Today, Microsoft The Corporate Entity seem to have given up on their quest for world domination, and are relying more on their products' merits, than on ruthless business strategies, to make a buck. And, as I said before, their product lines are fragmented enough that it's possible to admire one part of the company while detesting another. Insert smiley here.

Afternote 2: Sources. I have given links for the American Public Media and National Public Radio stories in the text. I also used the Wall Street Journal print edition, June 3, 2011, and Wikipedia entries on "George Hotz" and "Kinect" for details. I couldn't resist adding the New Scientist link about the race to hack the Kinect, after this blog entry had already been published. I would mention the Google search engine, since I used it extensively, but that's like mentioning oxygen: everybody uses it and nobody even thinks about it; it has become second nature. And let's not forget Galatians 6:7.