Tag Archives: LibreOffice

Gift-giving: Free Software, Free Music

For many of us, it’s gift-giving time. Choosing or making a present, wrapping it up and putting it under a tree or handing it to a friend or loved one.

This Christmas, why not give free gifts? There are great sources of free software AND free music. They are not only free to download and use, they’re free to share (and free to adapt & customize). It’ll save you money and it will come with the fringe benefits of freedom – the people who receive the gifts can share with others. It’s a gift that keeps on giving!

Free Software

These are free and open source software packages that we use at school with students and teachers. They are fully functional, cross-platform (so they’ll work on Windows or Mac OSX), and free to share. Download a copy and install it on your computer. Put a copy on a flash disk and give it to a friend or neighbour. They are all licensed so that you can share them freely.

Here are a few choice software tools that we use at ICS (and I personally use and enjoy!).

Powerful Productivity: LibreOffice

libreofficescreenshotLibreOffice is a free and fully-functional office suite. It has a word processor (Write) that can be used to type up a simple poem or format a multi-sectioned formatted document. The spreadsheet (Calc) supports all the usual functions and graphing features you would expect. The slide presenter (Impress) lets you make boring bullet-list presentations or slick graphics-full slides. Furthermore, there’s a Math formula editor, a powerful database component and (one of my favourite features) a drawing component that lets you create graphics or lay out brochures, posters, etc.

The main commercial competitor to LibreOffice is Microsoft Office. They both have strong features and each have functions that the other lacks. LibreOffice can open just about any MS Office file (.docx, .xlsx, etc. files) and also save files in Microsoft formats. See this LifeHacker article for comparisons.

In a review, PC World calls LibreOffice “extremely capable” and “highly configurable, extensible and cross platform.” It’s 100% free and available for Windows, OSX or Linux. Download it for free from the website.

Creativity Unlimited: The GIMP

gimpThe GIMP has an aweful name, but it’s an awesome program. The GIMP (it’s short for GNU Image Manipulation Program) lets you edit image files (photographs, etc.) in both simple (cropping, adjusting brightness, colors, etc.) ways and also in much more complicated ways. It has a range of artistic and creative filters you can apply to a whole image or part of one, multiple layers and brushes, etc. It’s an incredible creative program.

The GIMP’s main commercial competitor is Photoshop and it’s often compared to it. Expert Photoshop users find the GIMP’s interface and workflow different and might find it hard to work with. They both offer similar features, and both are incredibly powerful. If you’re a professional photo editor you might want to pay for Photoshop. If you just want to get creative with photos, try the GIMP. Here’s a simple and balanced comparison.

A review in ExtremeTech lauds the GIMP’s “extensive and powerful set of features” and states that “in some areas …it actually outshines Adobe Photoshop.” Check out this gallery to see some examples of amazing work with the GIMP.

Download the GIMP for Windows, Mac OSX from the website. (Click “other versions” for links to OSX and Windows downloads.)

Incredible Drawing Tool: Inkscape

Inkscape-1024x777Inkscape is a vector graphic drawing tool. That means it focuses on drawing and construction, rather than “paint-like” tools. With it, you can create graphics projects that are simple diagrams, plain clip art or complex artwork. It’s all SVG files – scalable vector graphics – so you can zoom in as much as you want and the graphics are crisp and detailed. There’s a great plugin (Sozi) which lets you create zoomable presentations. (Check out a workshop I presented about it here.)

The main commercial program that rivals Inkscape is Illustrator. Again, they both have powerful tools and can do many things the same. Check out this comparison on BrightHub.

MacWorld gives Inkscape 4 mice and calls it “powerful” and “highly extensible.” Download Inkscape for Windows, OSX or Linux here.

Want more?

Audacity is great for audio/podcasting, VLC is simply the best for playing any videos, Thunderbird is a terrific email client, KeePass is a secure way to store your many passwords, Celestia is incredible astronomy software, GeoGebra is a fantastic math learning program…

Check out the OpenSource.com website for much more information, or see these sites for free & open source software for Mac OSX or Windows.

Free Music

Sure, you can download “free” music from various sites on the internet, but much of that is pirated. You’re breaking copyright laws and violating licensing agreements. There have been cases where individual downloaders have been taken to court and fined hefty fines. And you’re really stealing the music – taking something without proper permission by the owner.

However, there are a number of musicians – independent, lesser-known artists – who share their work freely and give you permissionto download, listen to and even share their work. They don’t use copyright laws, but license their work with Creative Commons licenses. This is a way artists (even you or me) can protect their work but give permission to others to use, share, remix, etc. The artist can control how the work can be used (commercially? mashed-up or just like the original?) but all require attribution (giving credit to the artist), so you can use but not steal.

I’ve wrttien about this topic, including some of the Christmas music I found to give away, on my own personal blog.

Here are a few sites that I go to for great music.
fmascreenshot

FreeMusicArchive.org

The Free Music Archive is a great source of all types of music and podcasts. I often find interesting artists and good music to listen to. The music all has different licenses – mostly some version of the Creative Commons licenses. One of my favourite finds here is the Debo Band – an American/Ethiopian band that plays some great funky versions of Ethiopian jazz music.
jamendoscreenshot

Jamendo.com

Jamendo is another place I go to find interesting and free music. There are all kinds of independent bands that release music on the site, with all kinds of styles. I recently found and got hooked on the band I Am Not Lefthanded – featured on the website screenshot.

MusOpen.org

MusOpen has some beautiful classical music – all in the Public Domain. That means there is no copyright or restrictions on the music at all. Use them as you wish. They also have sheet music and educational resources …it’s a great site.

Happy holidays …give freely!

Giving the gift of free software

box-15737_640It’s Christmas time and many people are rushing around, scrambling for presents. Here’s an idea: give things that are free.

Free software not only has a great price (who can beat $0?), but also come with an ethos of freedom, openness and collaboration. They’re developed by the community, as people create plugins and extensions and then share them back to everyone in the community. The same is true for documentation and tutorials. It really is a gift that keeps on giving!

Here are three of my all-time favourite free software tools – freely downloadable for any operating system.

Free Office suite: LibreOffice

libreofficescreenshotLibreOffice is a powerful cross-platform office suite that includes not only the usual word processor, spreadsheet and slide presenter, but also a strong database and math formula editor. It’s more powerful than the tools you get on Google Docs and definitely stands up to Microsoft Office. Two features that I use regularly which MS lacks: a one-click “export to PDF” function (which also includes the capability of embedding the doc itself, making the PDF editable) and a Draw environment for graphic layouts of posters, brochures, etc. (Far simpler than trying to force Word to do it.)

PC World gives it 4 stars, calling it “an extremely capable office suite …highly configurable, extensible and cross-platform.)

Free photo editor/manipulator: GIMP

gimpThe GIMP has an awful name (it stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program), but it’s an awesome product. The GIMP is an image manipulation software – you can edit photos and other images, use a wide variety of tools and filters to apply artistic effects, change colors, etc. It’s comparable to the commercial Photoshop software. People do some amazing work with the GIMP.

A review in ExtremeTech lauds the GIMP’s “extensive and powerful set of features” and states that “in some areas …it actually outshines Adobe Photoshop.”

Free graphics creator/editor: Inkscape

InkscapeInkscape has made even a non-talented person like me an “artist.” (Well, at least I’ve created some graphics that one might consider art …or just clip art.) With Inkscape, you can create graphics projects that are simple diagrams, plain clip art or complex artwork. It’s all SVG files – scalable vector graphics – so you can zoom in as much as you want and the graphics are crisp and detailed. There’s a great plugin (Sozi) which lets you create zoomable presentations. (Check out a workshop I presented about it here.)

MacWorld gives Inkscape 4 mice and calls it “powerful” and “highly extensible.”

More

Want more? Audacity is great for audio/podcasting, VLC is simply the best for playing any videos, Thunderbird is a terrific email client, KeePass is a secure way to store your many passwords, Celestia is incredible astronomy software, GeoGebra is a fantastic math learning program…

Check out the OpenSource.com website for much more information, or see these sites for free & open source software for Mac OSX or Windows.

Hard = Good

It’s not intuitive. It’s too hard.

Such goes the typical dismissive comment on software or a website that someone isn’t familiar with. It’s a good way to diss an application without admitting that you don’t want to take the time to figure out how it works. Things should be so simple that anyone can just pick it up and immediately know what to do. Isn’t that how everything should be?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s a good thing that things are not easy to figure out, that it takes some effort. Maybe the constant work to make things effortless and intuitive means we are actually losing something.

Here are three things that happened to me today:

  1. A teacher expressed frustration at using LibreOffice because he couldn’t figure out how to format the page. He sent the file to me and told me to just do it – he didn’t have time for me to tell him what to do. I helped out …and told him the command to format a page was in the – surprise! – Format menu.
  2. An accountant came for help because she couldn’t log into her email. We’d closed it down because she’d followed a link on a phishing scam email and entered her username and password, so her account was taken over by spambots. This was despite repeated messages to everyone pointing out the dangers of phishing scams and that everyone should “Think before you click.”
  3. Someone else messed up and sent out an email to multiple recipients containing sensitive information. I was asked if I could delete all the emails. When I explained that it was impossible to delete it from all the recipients’ mail servers and that some might have already read the mail, I was greeted with incredulity that a recall wasn’t possible.

These are all examples of people who weren’t thinking. People who were just doing things without really considering what they were doing. People who were – if you will – intuiting.

Does it help them that they were used to just doing things? No. What they were engaging in was activities that required a little cognition and metacognition: trying to think about how a different piece of software would accomplish a task they were used to in a different way, reading and responding to messages that enticed and directed, composing messages that contained sensitive information. Unfortunately, none of these people really were thinking – they just reacted in ways they were used to and the result was not what was intended or wanted.

It’s one reason that I’ve become devoted to open source software. Such software is usually highly capable and feature-rich, but you often have to work at it. You have to think about what you want to accomplish and find out how to go and do it.

Another example: a colleague commented to me that he wanted his students to annotate PDF files. He had a Macbook and the bundled Preview application has some good annotation functions. His students who were using Ubuntu said they couldn’t do it in their PDF reader, so he’d asked for help in figuring out how the students could annotate the PDF documents.

In five minutes of searching, I found references to three software applications that could partially do the job – none satisfactorily. However, one website referred to a solution which jogged my memory and resulted in the best response. LibreOffice – which is installed on all our computers – can open a PDF and it has a wide variety of editing and markup tools. Problem solved!

Am I a genius? Am I an Ubuntu expert? Not at all. I just knew that I would have to go and look for the answer, test out possible solutions, and settle on one that worked the best in the given circumstances. That teacher could have done it. Any of his students could have done it. It didn’t take intelligence on my part – it just took the realization that the solution wasn’t intuitive but required some problem-solving.

As a teacher, and as a parent, this is the kind of thinking that I want my students (& child) doing. I want them analyzing a situation, considering what objective they want to achieve, and then looking for and analyzing potential answers. Isn’t that what all teachers and parents want? Do any of us really want our children simply intuiting the answers to their problems?

I realize that this is one perspective and that another one is simply: tools should be easy to use and we shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure them out. I get that. I shouldn’t have to Google how to use a screwdriver. However, most computing tools are less akin to a screwdriver and more similar to internal combustion engines. Those do really require some study and serious cognition.

So here’s to complicated software. It forces us to think.

Isn’t that great?

Save me!

LibreOffice 4.0 has landed!
licensed CC-BY-SA by Document Foundation

It was quite exciting! A new version of LibreOffice was being released: loads of new features, compatibility improvements, code clean-up. I was eagerly looking forward to trying out the built-in Logo coding, importing Microsoft Publisher documents, testing the integration with document management systems, and experimenting with the personalized themes.

When I got the tweet, I quickly went to the download site. I had to wait a few minutes (darn!) before the traffic slowed down enough. Then I got it downloaded. Quick: unpack the .zip file, uninstall the old version and one (well, two) little sudo dpkg -i *.deb later and I was up and running!

Then I saw it:

I wanted to run like the Flash and shout my frustration into the Grand Canyon. What the heck is that old-fashioned floppy disk icon doing in my brand new LibreOffice? What happened to the previous icon of an arrow pointing down to a hard drive? Who decided that a backwards move was needed?

So instead of playing around with new features, I went searching through the web to find out what the story was.

It’s not just the floppy disk icon that is old-fashioned. The clipboard, bookmark, etc. are all icons out of the 18th century. The telephone icon for modem connectivity is one of the earliest models of corded handsets. And let’s not forget the very concept of cc’ing someone! (For you youngsters, “CC” stands for “carbon copy” – go look up carbon paper!)

In the study of semiotics, there’s a concept of the arbitrariness of the sign: it doesn’t really matter what the symbol is as long as everyone agrees what it means. And so the floppy disk persists because through repeated use everybody agrees that it means save – even if people don’t really know what it’s a picture of. People have tried to come up with alternatives – leading to interesting options from graphic designers discussing merits and disadvantages of alternatives. The problem is that an icon needs to be simple enough, attractive enough, and suggestive enough. …My favorite suggestion was an icon of Jesus …because “Jesus saves!” 🙂

Discussions on various LibreOffice forums showed a back-and-forth of what kind of icon should be used, and whether it should have been changed in the first place. Discussions included whether the decision-making process reflected FOSS development as a meritocracy or democracy. There was discussion about the licensing and consistency of the Tango icon sets. And studies were done showing that the floppy icon greatly improved the usability of the software. (I couldn’t find any definitive decision …I must admit I grew fatigued with the search and the back & forth.)

As I considered it, I realized that none of these icons worked for me anyway.

One of the main alternatives was a filing cabinet – that’s even more old fashioned.  The icon I had been using was a stylized hard drive with an arrow pointing down to it. My laptop doesn’t have a hard drive – it uses solid state storage. (Should I use a microchip icon?) Various people and places suggest a cloud icon – representing storage up in the cloud. Not what I use (and not appropriate for a desktop application.)

I threw my hands up in frustration. The floppy icon isn’t going anywhere. It’s like the QWERTY keyboard: an artifact of an older era and older technology that lives on through sheer inertia.

Maybe I’ll just use my own icon: something simple, easy to identify and profoundly linked with the concept of saving…

I’ve got it!