8 More Ways to Make Computing Easier

Also see: 50 Free Tools to Make Computing Easier

"I really enjoyed your previous Download a la Mode article," shared one reader. "What are you planning next?"

With those words in mind, I have been keeping a close eye on a variety of free and useful tools. In this next series, you will find a variety of free software tools and tips that should make computing easier by explaining:

  1. How do I convert documents to Acrobat PDF without buying Acrobat Exchange?
  2. I'm responsible for managing multiple rooms, computer labs and such. Are there any tools available to help me?
  3. How do I record from LP to CD?
  4. Are there any free graphic editors available similar to Fireworks and Photoshop?
  5. How do I protect my files from prying eyes?
  6. How can I manage photo albums on my computer as well as share them via the Web with others?
  7. Is there a public domain or open source software program to convert (rip) tracks of a audio CD in to WAV files, convert MP3 files to WAV files, and convert WAV files to MP3 files?
  8. How do I get songs out of my iPod?

1) How do I convert documents to Acrobat PDF without buying Acrobat Exchange?

Although I've always used Acrobat Exchange & Distiller to create PDF files, I started playing around with Postscript files. For folks who maybe don’t have access to Acrobat Exchange (the program used to create PDF files), I wondered what free utilities might be out there. Of course, most operating system platforms — such as Macintosh and Linux 7mdash; can print directly to PDF these days, but there are some cases where you might be forced to print to something else. In my case, I was printing to postscript and then seeking to convert postscript files to PDF files.

Then I ran across the following extensions that allow you to convert from MANY formats to MANY others. Here's a short list: acme, acrobat, au, binary, binhex, dvi, excel, gif, html, jpg, latex, macbinary, mail, mif, mpeg, msword, multipart, pdf, pict, pilot-doc, pkzip, png, postscript, powerpoint, ppm, ps, quicktime, rtf, sun-raster, tar, text, tiff, uue, wav, web, word, wordperfect, wp5, xwd

Of course, another possibility, especially if you're working with PostScript files, is to use two free programs —GhostScript and GhostView. These two programs will allow you to view and print (on Windows, Linux operating systems) postscript (with a filename extension of "ps") and Portable Document Format (PDF) files.

Tool Link(s):

2) I'm responsible for managing multiple rooms, computer labs and such. Are there any tools available to help me?

I have been on the lookout for open source tools, and I found a pretty neat one! It's called Online Resource Scheduler, or ORS. The focus of the program is to enable scheduling of rooms and facilities.

Some of ORS's more powerful features include the following: a graphical, interactive calendar; ability to view by day, week, month, or text list; alternate signups for same resource and time block; automatic Email notifications of schedule changes.

Also, ORS provides password-controlled access with virtually unlimited number of resources and users, as well as automatic database backup. You can also control what is publicly-viewable. Best of all, it's a free resource scheduler.

Tool Link(s):
Online Resource Scheduler

3) How to record from LP to CD?

Hook the turntable to a regular receiver's phono input, and run one of the receiver's 'tape out' lines to your computer sound card’s LINE IN. From here, you need a piece of software. If you're using a PC, get Audiograbber, a free and simple tool that does a great job with this sort of thing. Another option is Audacity, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Under the file menu you’ll find an option for line-in sampling. Basically, you hit the record button and play the record. The software is supposed to make breaks between songs, but I haven't made that work, so click the "New Track" button. When you're done, you have a series of WAV files that can be dropped onto a CD. This works with all types of audio sources.

Tool Link(s):

4) Are there any free graphic editors available similar to Fireworks and Photoshop?

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to visit several private school campuses. Of course, I was privately surveying their Level Of Technology Implementation, or LOTI. However, I was surprised that some campuses weren't taking advantage of all the free available software that they could use.

At one campus, I was led by a proud administrator to a small room crammed with eMac computers. These were brand new machines and the teacher appeared to be brand new as well. His background was as an artist, and I asked him, "So, what software are you using?" He went on for a while discussing the theory and background of art...but the tools he described included Word's built-in graphics editor and PowerPoint.

I was a bit surprised that he was unaware of the free tools available on the Internet. I shared with him The GIMP as an alternative to Photoshop. On a private school budget, free is preferable to whatever Photoshop or Fireworks costs these days. I shared that The GIMP runs on Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems Later, I received an Email about another product — ImageWell — that is a simple graphics editor. Unfortunately, it's only available for Macs running OS X.

Tool Link(s):

5) How do I protect my files from prying eyes — even after deleting them?

Over the last 6 months, I've had to explain to several folks that simply because you delete files on your computer, it does not mean that they are "safe" and "unrecoverable." In fact, it is a relatively simple manner to “undelete” files from your computer. This is especially true with hard drives on computers sent out for disposal, especially when little has been done to remove the data. Often, re-imaging a hard drive just is not enough. With the real threat of identity theft, it is much too dangerous to not establish a regular pattern of wiping your hard drive's "free space" to get rid of deleted files.

In previous columns, I recommended using Pretty Good Privacy, known as PGP, or CryptainerLE to encrypt sensitive files. Yet, everything you do leaves traces of information on your computer that others can access. You should consider using programs like those mentioned below to ensure your privacy after using a computer. One such free utility is Eraser 5.7. It allows you to permanently erase files, just like the free PGP software, so that they are unrecoverable, even by "forensic" methods used by government and the FBI (ok, ok...but isn't it nice to know that the program is of so high a quality?). While this may seem a bit extreme, even paranoid, remember that at some time, we all deal with confidential information on our computers. Would you want that data accessible to someone should your computer be stolen or accessed inappropriately?

Eraser has a free hard drive reformatting utility that can remove asset tracking programs like Absolute Software's CompuTrace. By the way, I always have a laugh at the way school districts seek to use such software to protect against theft...with this software, a Linux Boot CD, this protection is nullified. It is protection only for those computers that aren't stolen. This is important to know, especially for organizations who might choose to use this expensive software in lieu of other security methods (e.g. cables to secure computer equipment).

In addition to protecting your Email privacy, you may also want to consider the following free utilities available from JavaCool Software, the same folks that made SpywareBlaster.

  • MRU Blaster: Protect your privacy - find and remove over 30,000 most recently used lists and other stores of hidden information.
  • ID-Blaster: Destroy tracking tactics by randomizing GUID/Unique ID numbers found on your computer.
  • DocScrubber: Removes critical information that you might be inadvertently revealing through your Microsoft Word documents.

And, what's the new software I found recently? Well, it's called WinPrivacy Tools and it’s a collection of multilingual applications for easy digital encryption and signing of content. As the site says, “It's GnuPG-based, compatible with OpenPGP compliant software (like PGP) and free for commercial and personal use under the GPL." I also put together a quick tutorial on how to use Eraser to wipe data off your hard drive. It's very simple and can fit on a floppy disk. I hope these are useful to you as you protect your privacy.

Tool Link(s):
JavaCool Software
WinPrivacy Tools
Eraser Tutorial

6) How can I manage photo albums on my computer as well as share them via the Web with others?

If you're a Mac user, you probably already use iPhoto to manage your digital photographs and images. And, of course, you can share photos through your .Mac account. Of course, one always should be careful about putting their photos online for fear of how they may be used in ways beyond one's control.

However, if you are a Windows user, then you must rely on other free tools available to you. The following software and Web-based tools — listed in order of this author's preference — boast powerful photo album management and sharing features.

  • JAlbum
    This is photo album software that makes Web albums of your digital pictures. It works on all computer platforms (e.g. Mac, Windows, Linux, Solaris) because it is a Java applet. It is also available in multiple languages.
  • Picassa
    This program searches your computer for all digital images and puts them into a virtual photo album. You can move photos around, re-arrange them easily, delete them, etc. Note that Picassa can work with Hello to share photos directly on the Web. It has an annoying feature in that it leaves a log file in each directory it scans. While one can easily do a file search and mass delete all the files, it can be a pain when working with Webalbums.
  • Flickr
    Allows you to post photos online and share them with others. The Website describes Flickr as "the WD-40 that makes it easy to get photos from one person to another in whatever way they want." This includes photos from the web, from mobile devices, from the users' home computers and from whatever software they are using to manage their photos. Flickr also supports sharing the photos via the Flickr website, in RSS feeds, by email, by posting to outside blogs.
  • PhotoBucket
    Provides image hosting for Ebay, live journals, blogs, message boards, and online photo albums.

Tool Link(s):
Hello with Bloggerbot

7) Is there a public domain or open source software program to convert (rip) tracks of an audio CD to WAV files, convert MP3 files to WAV files, and convert WAV files to MP3 files?

While you could use the ubiquituous iTunes software that works on Windows or Mac, I'd suggest you take a look at the free program Quintessential Player. Although iTunes is becoming controversial — and being banned on some work computer systems because it can tie up precious network bandwidth — Quintessential Player combines the simplicity of a music file player and converter. It features many import and export features. The only drawback is that it is available for Windows only. Of course, another free program that cannot go without mention is Audacity, and this is available for Linux, Windows and Mac. It allows you to record live audio, convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs, edit OGG, MP3 and WAV sound files. More importantly, it enables one to cut, copy, splice and mix sounds together on the screen. This can be great when conducting audio interviews, allowing students to insert their questions into an interviewee's answers, and thus changing the tone and context of the interview in exciting ways.

Tool Link(s):
Quintessential Player NB: Windows only

8) How do I get songs out of my iPod?

For educators, having access to an iPod is wonderful. You can take advantage of the tremendous space available on the iPod, as well as work with the "fun" side. Before we talk about the fun side, the iPod works well as a back up data source from work servers, computers, and allows transfer of files easily from one computer to another without tying up bandwidth. Of course, you can still set up FTP servers on your own computer, but it's easier to just drop it onto an iPod then move it over.

I recently discovered a program that allows you to copy your music back from the iPod to your computer. This was handy since I recently lost everything on a Mac; it would have been tough to find all the original CD-ROMs from which the songs had been taken, and the time investment was also a pain. To solve this problem, I went looking for a program that would allow me to copy songs from the iPod back to the iTunes on the Mac. This program seems to do the job. It is called iPodRip. Unfortunately, it's not free but is inexpensive, at $9 per license! Of course, you can always try it out before buying. A free, Windows-compatible program that does the same thing is SharePod.

Tool Link(s):
iPodRip NB: Macintosh
SharePod NB: Windows

Email:Miguel Guhlin