Sebastian Kirsch: Blog

Tuesday, 18 January 2005

Illustration software

Filed under: — Sebastian Kirsch @ 22:17

Preparing a paper for a seminar, I’m once again faced with the problem of creating illustrations. Just some basic diagrams of graphs, trees, points, lines, arrows, some formulas.

I have a couple of rather simple requirements: Should produce decent-looking pictures, should provide means of specifying sizes, spaces and alignments in a meaningful way, should export to somnething that can be integrated with pdflatex (because I’m writing the paper in LATEX.)

Oh, and I’m cheap too. I know I could buy professional graphics software (like Adobe Illustrator) for something like EUR700, but could I afford it? No. Would I ever use it to its potential? No. My old favourite, CorelDRAW!, is not available for Mac OS X, unfortunately.

After trying a couple of alternatives – like Draw, and OmniGraffle, which came with my PowerBook – and asking a couple of friends, I found myself going back to the traditional tools: MetaPost and XFig.

MetaPost is kind of like a programming language for pictures, with the ability to solve systems of linear equations. That way, you almost never have to specify any coordinates – you just say the equivalent of “Well, those two boxes are 2cm apart, and they are evenly spaced, and the center of this box and that one is in one line", and the layout is done automatically. MetaPost can process your text using LATEX, so math is no problem, and you can use the exact same fonts as in your main documents. MetaPost can be imported in pdflatex natively, too.

XFig is more of a traditional drawing program. It was one of the first drawing programs available for SunView, written in 1985, and later ported to X11. That means it has been around for about 20 years! The user interface is somewhat strange (for example, it relies heavily on having a three-button mouse), but overall, it’s rather usable. And one very important point is that it allows exporting to MetaPost – having the same graphics format and the same fonts provides some sort of continuity for graphics that were made with different software.

So I use MetaPost for things that are easy to specify algorithmically (tree structures, for example) and XFig for everything else. Both programs are scriptable, so creating a little workflow that recompiles everything when a drawing changes is not too difficult, using a Makefile.

I still wonder whether my choice of software limits me in my graphical expression; after all, good illustrations are an integral part of a good paper, and can serve to explain much better than text or formulas.

Oh, the topic of the seminar is information extraction; I’m reporting on relation extraction using kernel methods. The paper and slides should appear on my academic page as soon as they’re finished.


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