Last month a video was shared with me about this young man from Colorado named Easton LaChappelle who during high school taught himself programming and electronics because he was inspired to make something cool; A robot hand that could be controlled with a glove. At a science fair he met a young girl who had a prosthetic arm that he learned cost about $80,000. His hobby of cool became a mission. Through connections over the internet, learning 3D CAD modelling he kept persisting and iterating using all the methods he could as fast as he could. The evolution over such a short time is awe inspiring.
Easton is really an inspiration. He’s 19 and lives a life of curiosity and selflessness outside boundaries. Enjoy!
The video I originally watched about all this was shared on Facebook shared by a friend. He makes a very special announcement at the end of it. Easton’s company that he founded at age 17 is called Unlimited Tomorrow.
If you’re into the digital graphics for a hobby or work, you’ve been told that Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are the industry standard. This is certainly true, but the “standard” doesn’t mean better in all aspects. Xara Xtreme is one of the few lesser-known alternatives that in some areas measurably outperforms Adobe’s offerings. I’ve been using it for several years. I fell in love when I saw the speed and clean interface of the program. Multiple updates over the past couple years have made it even more flexible. I always enjoy telling people about it because it’s simplicity and performance is surprising.
Some notable favorite features for me including some new ones out with the latest 5.1 version:
- Much easier learning curve than Illustrator for drawing and manipulating vector path objects
- Great interface, cleaner menus and simple tool panels, not overcrowded, with easy access to everything for a faster workflow.
- Can handle more intricately detailed vector drawings faster, (Zooms to an insane 25,000%)
- Dead-simple live gradient editing
- Multi-page documents (5.1 now has master page objects too!)
- Beautiful gradient transparency, now multi-stage
- Can utilize Photoshop filters as plugins and has it’s own library for many effects
- Cleaner pathfinder style tools such as cut and combine (Illustrator is simply harder to learn in this area, with little reward)
- Exports and Imports dozens of formats including vector and bitmap. Notably, layered PSDs, EPS, PNG, TIFF, HTML, PDF and more.
- 3D extrusion tools
- Creates Exports Flash Animations
- Complete Web design and creation tools included.
- A variety of bitmap image controls (cropping, feather, built-in filters)
- New Seam-carving / content-aware image resizing. (you need to see this feature to believe it, also in Photoshop CS4 and GIMP as a plugin)
- Reasonably complete PDF print export options
There are limits to Xara’s superiority. Looking at Illustrator, you can tell it has a great deal more features, just look at Illustrator’s Effect menu. But if I had Xara when I was learning vector graphics instead of Illustrator or Freehand, I think I would have enjoyed the process much more. I also believe if Adobe Flash had Xara’s tools for vector drawing it would also be a better program by far. I’ve often composed in Xara just to export to Flash in order to bypass some of Flash’s clumsiness. In short, I want Adobe to be more like Xara, just as much as I’d like a few things in Xara that Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and even the new and free Inkscape has. I have other “underdog” programs that I swear by, but this is the big one that I happily pay for.
Downsides of Xara, first it’s only on Windows. Linux users can use an older open source free version of Xtreme, but is hasn’t been feature-developed since 2007. This free version is fast and certainly good, but it’s missing some terrific features that Windows has. Mac has no Xara and I wish it did. Also there are some file import issues I’ve found. Fore example, sharing SVG and EPS files has given me plenty of frowns. Sure it’s not a big deal when you control everything, but when you need to collaborate with others, or send files to print, you need reliability. Also despite the type features having massive improvements over the past few years, you will find InDesign a little better for you for composing most longer documents. I could think of a few more issues, but I could dig for more in any software.
Xara Xtreme has become over the years a must-have tool. Adobe users have become converts plenty of times, after being hypnotized by its beauty. Even though I really love most of Adobe’s collection, Xara does certain tasks better and faster. You’ll use it for full graphic and page creation, enjoy it’s speed for mockups and maybe as a thinking tool before you’d open anything else. I love working with objects, breaking them apart, modifying shapes. The projects I’ve been able to do solely in Xara such as illustrations and diagrams, I’ve nearly always completed more efficiently than I could with other tools, and with a lot of enjoyment.
While coming back from our two-week train trip around Japan, Juri and I stopped in Shimokitazawa before heading back to Juri’s parents house. The reason we stopped? Before we left the states, I sent out a cold email to author and instructor Tony Mullen. He wrote an instructional book on my favorite free 3D software Blender. Like a lot of free and open source software, Blender has a large and strong community of users. The strength is based on bettering your skills and sharing knowledge. From this, I just knew that if my email reached Tony, and if he was free, he would likely agree to meet up for lunch. I knew this because I would do the same thing had the roles been reversed.
Tony met us at the south exit of the train station at Shimokitazawa, a very hip little area of Tokyo. Despite the unfamiliarity, I had plenty of things to talk to him about. We walked down the road to a nice cafe and had lunch. I wasn’t really hungry as much as I was excited to talk. We talked about Blender and the community, about our experience with open source software. We talked about our own jobs and about Japan. I was surprised to hear that Tony teaches Blender as the main program in an Introduction to Computers class. This is the same kind of class where one might typically cover MS Word, Excel and email. His college is Tsuda University, a womens college in Japan. So his students, and those who form his after school blender club are all female! I’ve never actually seen a girl do any 3D graphics in my life, let alone college freshman girls in their first intro computer class modeling and animating characters.
While in Japan, I also read an article that Tony is starting another book on Blender, about particles and physics. Sound complicated? It’s basically how to animate things like falling stars or a character’s head of hair. Also handling how objects can crash together or blow apart. 3D is fairly complicated and any book on Blender is a welcome addition since it doesn’t have the nearly the books and products you can find for 3D Max, Maya, or Lightwave.
It felt great to speak and hear english for a couple hours for a change. Tony is a very intelligent guy and quite hilarious. You can tell he’s got the international street smarts. His sharp wit and humor exist on a higher level certainly because of his experience and learning. It was a pleasure to hang out that afternoon. Even Juri got a little shopping done in the district as well. I had hoped to ask Tony if he had any tips for me when I teach my six hour blender summer class in July. I didn’t really get to that point though. No problem, I have his book to look through and he signed my copy of it too. He said mine was the first one he signed.
Thanks Tony! Hope we keep in touch and meet up again!
In an unrelated note, I thought I would share with my readers what my $7.50 Green Tea shake from the cafe looked like. Don’t let the pic fool you. The glass was only about 4 1/2 inches tall. This food size / price issue is the hardest thing for me to get used to in Japan. But I will say the taste made up for it big time. Those are white chocolate chunks sprinkled on top of the ice cream with a small amount of sweet red beans.