Saturday, March 28, 2009

5 short links for today

Here is a small collection of tools and websites that you might like to add to your bookmarks. Check them out.

1. Ajax Loader is a web service that allows you to quickly generate loading GIF animation for your websites and software. More than 30 different patterns are available. See some samples. The color is customizable.

 1  2   3

2. DrawSpace is an extensive resource of tutorials for wannabe artists. There are lessons that teaches you how to almost anything – from human faces to legs and cats to lions. Lessons on sketching and colorings, and concepts like perspective and 3D.

drawspace

3. WZ2K: A website of video tutorials on web design, photography and SEO. Lots of video tutorials on software like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, PHP and so on.

4. Visible Body is a web based interactive 3-D model of the human body that the users can explore through. The Visible Body consists of highly detailed, anatomically accurate, 3-D models of 1,700 anatomical structures, including all major organs and systems of the human body. The site requires you to install a plugin in your browser. Supported browsers are IE, Firefox and safari.

visiblebody visiblebody2

5. World’s Highest Website: Did you know that a website could be measured by length? This website is 18.939 kilometers tall (about 11.77 miles). Note: Does not work on Opera.

Friday, March 27, 2009

How to identify flags of the world?

If you recognize each and every flag of the world, it’s commendable. But not everybody has such a keen memory. Often we come across flags we have never seen before and we get stumped. If you find yourself in such a fix, head to Flag Identifier.

Flag Identifier is a web site that helps you identify different flags of the world – national flags of countries, military flags, civil flags and so on through their flag search engine. Using the engine you can search flags by color, shape, geography, history, objects and so on. I decided to give it a try.

I started looking for a flag that is complex - had many colors and had some kind of an emblem or shape and finally settled on the flag of Commonwealth of Dominica. I’m going to try and search this flag out.

flag_dominica

I went to Flag Identifier and selected search by color and device combined. Next I selected the four primary colors on the flag – red, yellow, green and black, one at a time. As I kept selecting the colors I saw that the available colors began to narrow down – the search engine had already began to filter the results. At this point it gave me to choose two more colors – blue and white, which is exactly the two remaining colors on the flag.

flag_identifier1

Next I selected a device, an animal and then selected bird in the following step. When I proceeded to the next step and saw a parrot waiting for me, I knew they had found it.

flag_identifier2

I completed the remaining steps and ta-da, here is the result.

flag_identifier3

The entire process took less than 2 minutes. The search process is so easy and the search engine so perfect I know I could find any flag with it. And if you make any mistake when choosing colors or shapes, just hit the back button of your browser and correct your mistake.

At the time of writing this, Flag Identifier has 1026 flags in the database. This is certainly worth a bookmark.

Doculicious - Fillable PDF documents for your website

Doculicious is an interesting web service that allows webmasters to create fillable PDF documents and then embed those on their website. It’s just another way of creating web forms to collect information from your visitors or customers, but there is one certain advantage. It allows the user to download the completed form as a PDF file that can be saved on their computer or printed, while the entered data goes to the webmaster. Doculicious can also be used in places which has nothing to do with data collection. For instance, you can create templates of certificates for schools or visiting cards for employees of an organization. The users fill the required data and download the PDF copy for printing.

Doculicious is available in free as well as paid plans. The free plans has limitations on the number of documents you can create, number of times these can be filled and downloaded, the storage space you get and some other features.

Doculicious-editor

You will need some time to get used to their document editor, but once you do it’s pretty straightforward. You can create a new document from scratch or import an existing template and then modify it. The document can be customized in every possible way – document size, background color, text size, font and color, add image, resize them and drag and drop elements to position them on the canvas. The behavior of each element can be further customized using the Element Properties box on the left side of the document editor.

If you are collecting information you can receive notification every time somebody uses the document. You can also choose not to collect any of the entered data.

Here is an example fillable PDF document I have created (pardon the crooked look). This document does not collect any information you enter. So feel free to try it out. The free account is unfortunately limited to only 50 entries and 20 downloads per month.

powered by doculicious

Thursday, March 26, 2009

MediaPortal – The open source alternative to Windows Media Center

The Windows XP Media Center Edition, as you already know, is designed to transform your computer into a complete entertainment hub. There are a few alternatives to it such as Beyond TV, Tivo and WinDVR which are commercial software and some free ones like MythTV and Freevo. The problem with the free alternatives is that these run on Linux and most people get scared away by the very mention of the name Linux. MediaPortal is another free media center software that runs on Windows.

MediaPortal allows you to watch videos, view TV guide for various channels, record, pause and rewind live television like any PVR software. You can listen to music, streaming music from various Internet radio stations, monitor weather, play games and browse pictures, burn DVDS and more. And if that’s not enough, MediaPortal has an extensive collection of plugins allowing users to extend the functionality of the software even more.

mediaportal2 mediaportal (2)  mediaportal (3) mediaportal

MediaPortal is a fabulous way to enjoy movies and music on your PC

UltraStar – The game that judges how well you sing

Want to know how people on the other side of the bathroom door react when you sing? Do you want to find out if your voice is gifted enough to let you fulfill your secret desire to publish your own music album? Sing in front of UltraStar and let it judge you.

UltraStar is a clone of the popular karaoke game series for Playstation - SingStar, released under GPL for Microsoft Windows. Like the original game, UltraStar require players to sing along with the music or a music video, like in a karaoke system, in order to score points. The game displays the lyrics as well as the correct notes in the form of horizontal bars. On top of the correct notes UltraStar displays the pitch recorded from the players. The game analyses the player's pitch and compares it to the original track, and then scores the players based on how accurate their singing is. Ultrastar allows several people (up to 6) to play simultaneously by connecting several microphones, making it an ideal game for parties.

 ultrastar

The game comes pre loaded with just one song from Nine Inch Nail, obviously due to copyright issues. But you cannot simply add any song from your music library to this program. Only songs that are specially packaged for use with UltraStar can be imported into the program. Don’t worry, there are thousands of such songs available on the Internet. UltraStar Songs is one destination. Then there are torrents, or simply search for “UltraStar songs” on Google.

The game also has a music creation utility using which you can create your own music packs, but this involves a fair amount of work. A better way is to just download them from the Internet.

Ultrastar_deluxe

The UltraStar project has forked into several similar game projects, many of which are better than the original game. UltraStar Deluxe is one such fork. While the original game works only in Windows,  UltraStar Deluxe is available for all the three major platforms – Windows, Linux and Mac. UltraStar Deluxe is also significantly better than it’s parent.

  • It has support for more video formats, such as DivX, XviD, FLV, Avi and WMV.
  • Many visual improvements
  • It has a Party mode with various game types. This includes support for plugins that allow further extension of such game types.
  • Improved song management and selection with the ability to search for songs and use playlists
  • More detailed statistics screen

Performous is another deviation from UltraStar. This one is entirely devoted to the Lunux platform though it can be installed on the Mac too. It has it’s own peer developer group leading to several new improvements and unique features. Performous has better pitch detection capabilities as it uses FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) that can detect multiple tones simultaneously, compared to Autocorrelation which is used by UltraStar. Another unique feature to Performous is that it draws the singing pitch as a line on the screen, allowing the player to easily spot their mistake and correct their pitch.

Performous

There is yet another fork to UltraStar, the UltraStar for Mac OS X.

And UltraStar isn’t the only karaoke game available. Take a look at these competitors – Sinatra, Canta and KaraokeParty.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

KidRocket - Web browser and desktop protection for kids

Probably the most scariest thing for parents is to leave their child on the Internet unattended. But who has the time to monitor everything a child does on the computer or prepare a blacklist of millions of objectionable websites to add to the host file? It’s impossible. If you are facing a similar predicament take a look at KidRocket.

KidRocket is a simple web browser targeted towards kids. Actually, it doesn’t entirely fit the description of a web browser, it’s more like a package with a number of application for kids which also includes a browser. KidRocket’s browser allows the user to view only a handful of kid specific websites included in the browser’s whitelist. Currently the list consist of only 12 websites which includes some popular kid sites like Nick.com, CartoonNetwork.com, PbsKids.org etc. These websites appear as row of thumbnails at the top of the browser and can be opened by clicking on it. The browser has no visible address bar where you can type a URL, so it’s impossible to open any other websites not included in the browser.

kidrocket-main

KidRocket also has an Art tool and a Math application. The Art tool is a simple drawing program for kids with over sized paint brushes and bright colors. The Math tool gives the kid simple math problems to solve, the difficulty of which can be adjusted by the parents from the Admin tool.

In case you are wondering what an art and math tool doing in a browser, there is a good reason. KidRocket also functions as a desktop locking tool. After launching the application, parents can lock KidRocket in place with a password. The application goes full screen and without the correct password the kid cannot exit it to access other items on the computer. This means that once the application is locked with a password the kid cannot open a regular browser to view other websites, or play games or watch movies. Even Ctrl+Alt+Del doesn’t work.

So parents can effectively lock down the computer leaving only KidRocket open with a browser, an art tool and a math quiz. It’s a great tool for working parents.

The only drawback of KidRocket is the inability to add more sites to the browser. Kids get stuck with only 12 websites. There are hundreds of more sites for kids which are not included in the browser. Sure those 12 included sites are regularly updated and provide plenty of games, but sooner or later kids will get tired of it.

Related: Qimo – Linux for kids

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

8 browser addons and scripts for better YouTube experience

If you spend a considerable part of your life watching YouTube videos, you would appreciate me for compiling this list for you. Remember that you will either require Firefox or a browsers that supports userscripts, like Opera and Safari, to use these tools. So here we go.

youtube_logo2

Removing distractions from YouTube page

Quietube: This is the most recent of all YouTube tools, so let me mention this first. Quietube is a browser bookmarklet that removes all distraction from the YouTube page which includes comments, advertisements and well … everything, except the video. Just drag this bookmarklet to your browser’s bookmark toolbar and whenever you land on a YouTube page, click on the bookmarklet to quickly wipe out everything from the page. Want to share the video with someone? Click on the Tinyurl link at the bottom of the page to automatically create a Tinyurl shortened URL for sharing.

YouTube Comment Snob: YouTube comments are worthless, we know it. But still if you don’t like the idea of removing all comments from YouTube, then you can try this Firefox addon. YouTube Comment Snob allows you to filter out trashy comments based on customizable rules like spelling mistakes, excessive punctuation (!!!! ????), excessive capitalization, profanity and such.

Video Focus is another distraction free tool, this time in a Greasemonkey script format. The script allows you to turn on or off comments, related videos, and also allows you to resize the browser to fit the video, change background color and also download videos. Video Focus supports more than 70 video sites.

Preventing AutoPlay of videos

TubeStop is a Firefox addon that prevents autoplay of YouTube videos. Useful when you open a number of YouTube tabs at the same time intending to view them one after the other. For non Firefox users there is a userscript YouTube Prevent Autoplay. Of course, you can use it with Firefox too.

HQ YouTube videos

YouTube HQ + 720p Ultimate is a Greasemonkey script that automatically switches all YouTube videos to high-quality, if it’s available. It ensures that you always get to view a video in it’s highest available resolution without having to seek for it yourself. This script also comes with the autoplay off feature.

Create album cover mosaic wallpapers with Last.fm Desktop Generator

Gijsco's Last.fm Desktop Generator is a cool application for music junkies. Here is what it does: it downloads data from your Last.fm profile and then creates a mosaic out of the covers of your favorite music albums and sets it as a wallpaper.

Actually, this program is capable of pulling music history data from any Last.fm user. Just enter a Last.fm username, click on Draw Image and create a mosaic of album covers. The mosaic can be saved as a single image for later use or directly applied as a wallpaper. The data source can either be the most recent albums a user listened to during the past week, month, 3 months, 6 month, a year are the overall music history of that user.

lastfm-desktop-generator

The program offers a surprising number of customization options despite it’s simple function. The options menu is neatly categorized into 3 sections – Pre-processing, Drawing and Post-processing.

lastfm-options The Pre-processing options allows you to filter the data which is retrieved from the Last.fm. For instance, you can choose to include certain albums into the result or exclude them, or use only those albums that were played for a specific number of times. You can also ‘boost the quality’ of the album cover images by instructing them to download higher resolution images.

The Drawing options enables you to add borders to the images or even include your own fake album covers. There are more drawing options under the Draw Image menu like generating mosaics with same album cover size, or random sizes or a single line of images with reflection and glassy effect.

The Post-processing options provides a handful of image filters like blur, desaturate and fade. The various options enables you to apply all kinds of effects and modification without having to import the image to another image editor.

A number of available command line switches enables you to create a schedule task to automatically generate a new wallpaper at any interval you desire.

Monday, March 23, 2009

How to spot the International Space Station, now the 2nd brightest object in the night sky

There has been a buzz of activity around the International Space Station for past several days and it culminated last Friday with the successful deployment of a new set of massive solar arrays. The new solar panels are so huge that the sunlight reflected from these arrays makes the ISS easier to spot with the naked eye than ever before. It is now the second brightest object in the night sky, even brighter than Venus and beaten only by the Moon!

Astronauts on board the ISS and space shuttle Discovery unfurled the arrays, successfully carrying out the main objective of the STS-119 mission. "Today was a great day," said ISS commander Mike Fincke to mission control Friday afternoon. "Today is the day the station went to full power." The length of the arrays unfurled Friday measures 73 meters (240 feet), tip to tip, with the S6 truss in between. The S6 solar array pair adds 892 square meters (9,600 square feet) to the station solar arrays, bringing the total surface area to nearly an acre. The station’s arrays now will generate as much as 120 kilowatts of usable electricity, enough to power about 42, 260 square meter (2800-square-foot) homes.

-Universe Today

How to get a glimpse of the ISS as it flies over your head?

Now that the ISS is one of the most visible object in the night sky, it would be a shame if you say you never ever seen it. But unlike the Moon or the Venus that appears almost stationary in the sky, the ISS zooms across the sky taking just about 13 minutes to cross the visible portion of the sky on any place on earth. And unless you are standing on a flat desert with nothing in the horizon for miles you wouldn’t even have 13 minutes to view it. if you live in a city with lots of high rise structures and other obstructions your window of visibility is very small and short.

Besides, a satellite sighting is possible only if the following four conditions are met:

  1. The satellite must be above the horizon (this is obvious)
  2. The observer must be in darkness (sun below the observer's horizon)
  3. The satellite must be in sunlight (sun above the satellite's horizon)
  4. The correct side of the satellite must be lit

So in order to see the ISS you have to be out and looking at the precise moment. There are a couple of websites and software (Orbitron) that provide real time tracking of ISS and other satellites. NASA’s SkyWatch is a particularly helpful utility.

On SkyWatch’s online application click on the tab ‘Sat Info’ and select ISS as the satellite from the menu. Now go to the ‘Input’ tab and choose your city from the list. If your city or town does not appear on the list, enter the latitude and longitude of your place which is easily available with a Google search. After entering the data, click on Next Sighting.

nasa-skywatch1

You will be presented with a table that provides you with essential data required to spot the station.

  • The Rise time is the time when the station just emerges into the horizon.
  • The Set time is the time when the station goes below the horizon.
  • The Azimuth is the compass direction where the station would be visible. North is 0 deg, East is 90 deg, South is 180 deg and West is 270 deg.
  • The Elevation is the vertical angle the station makes with the horizon, i.e. the angle at which you have to look up to see the station.

nasa-skywatch-table

You can obtain data for several successive passes and sighting and print it.

Other useful online resources for tracking the ISS are ISS Tracker and ISS: Where is it now?

Related: Live streaming video from the International Space Station

Assign keyboard shortcuts to open URLs in Firefox

If you remember, we had covered one Firefox addon in the past – Quickmarks, that converts the Function keys into shortcuts to open specific web sites. One drawback of this addon is that Function keys are limited, only 12, and some of them are already assigned with specific functions like F5 for refresh, F11 for full screen etc. So the number of available shortcuts keys is less than 12. Recently I came across another Firefox addon with much better features.

The addon named ShortcutKey2URL allows you to assign keyboard shortcuts to open web sites, and unlike the above mentioned Quickmarks, ShortcutKey2URL allows you to use any of the alphanumerical keys. The keys that are disallowed are the Function keys and the special keys (Enter, Shift, Alt etc)

ShortcutKey2URL-box2

There are three ways to create shortcuts:

- Access ShortcutKey2URL’s configuration window from the Tools menu and directly enter the URLs.

- Open the website in Firefox and click on the ShortcutKey2URL icon that appears on the address bar.

 ShortcutKey2URL-2

- Right-click on a hyperlink and click on Add ShortcutKey2URL in the context menu.

ShortcutKey2URL-contextmenu

To open a URL, simply press the startup key Ctrl + Q (which can be changed) followed by the URL shortcut key. For instance, if you have set the key ‘G’ as a shortcut to open www.gmail.com , press Ctrl + Q, release the keys and then press G. You have to press the shortcut key within 5 seconds of pressing the startup key combination. The validity period of 5 seconds is indicated by a glowing ShortcutKey2URL icon in the address bar.

If you are a keyboard junkie and have no problem remembering the shortcuts, you should have a good time using this addon.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jahshaka – Open source real time video editing and effects software

Some of the most expensive software packages are the ones which are related to the music and movie industry. Industry standard animation software and post production software for audio and video editing does not come cheap, for whatever reason. So if you are looking for a post production video editing software with professional capabilities but don’t want to empty your wallet, try this open source software Jahshaka.

Jahshaka is a cross-platform real time video editing and effects software which is geared towards beginners and intermediate users. While it might not be as powerful as the commercial tools developed by bigwigs like Adobe, Autodesk, Pinnacle and Sony, it has plenty of features and capabilities just waiting to be exploited.

jahshaka-screenshot

Jahshaka takes advantage of the power of OpenGL and OpenML to give its users exceptional levels of performance. It supports a large number of video formats and allows real time full video and audio editing, animation, and a special effects operations. The program has been designed to deliver the best performance even with slower processors and being cross-platform it supports all major operating systems – Windows, Linux and Mac.

Key Features:

Multimedia support:

  • Video: avi, dv, mpeg (1 and 2) + limited mov and mp4
  • Audio: ogg, mp2, mp3, wav
  • Image: still images, image sequences
  • Many codecs supported including mpeg4, mjpeg, dv, mpeg (1 and 2), h263 + others
  • Direct use of Editor projects in all modules
  • X3D, OBJ and 3DS scene file support for 3D scenes embedded GLSL shader support

Player:

  • Cross platform OpenGL accelerated playback
  • Correct aspect ratio presentation
  • Frame accurate seeking for most supported formats
  • Visualization for audio playback 
  • Variable frame rates for image sequences and muted video 
  • Optional Play list support 
  • Cached playback of image sequences 
  • Customizable zoom levels and auto zoom options 
  • Image analysis (luminosity and color samples) 
  • Pressure sensitive transport controls 
  • Limited Keyboard control & Drag and drop from the media table

Encoder:

  • Integrated previewer
  • Various output formats supported including divx, mpeg1&2, flash, dv & psp
  • Automatic aspect ratio sensitive scaling 
  • Once started, the encoder runs in the background 
  • Drag and drop from the media table for previewing

Editor:

  • Multi track editing PAL and NTSC supported with automatic temporal and image re-sampling 
  • Mixed resolution and format editing 
  • Mixed audio support (with automatic re-sampling) 
  • Automatic compositing and audio mixing between tracks 
  • Track level compositing control  Cut level compositing control 
  • Transitions with variable luma masks 
  • Customizable zoom levels and auto zoom options 
  • Drag and drop media, filter and mask capabilities 
  • Reusable output without a render sequence requirement 
  • Alpha channel output in non-rendered sequence mode 
  • Comprehensive keyboard controls 
  • Auto save and recovery 
  • Multiple undo/redo levels Selectable 4:3 or 16:9 outputs 
  • Various de-interlacing techniques 
  • Various filters (chroma, alpha shaping, key frameable compositing etc) 
  • Fixed pan and scan for 16:9 to 4:3 conversion (via track level controls) 
  • Integrated access to the Encoder functionality

The Jahshaka project was almost dead for two years, when it was “held up by a group of sponsors who had alternative goals”. After being liberated from these forces, Jahshaka is moving towards releasing a new version v3. However, right now the only available version is v2.

CheckPlaces – Remove invalid bookmarks from Firefox

Remember AM-DeadLink, the tool that scans and removes dead and duplicate links from your browser bookmarks? CheckPlaces does the same. While AM DeadLink is a standalone application that supports Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera, CheckPlaces is a Firefox addon and works only with Firefox.

CheckPlaces adds itself to the bookmark menu and hence it’s easier to access. You can also reach it from the toolbar or status bar. Checkplaces perform three kinds of cleaning operation – it checks whether the saved links still exist, it checks for duplicate entries and it searches for empty folder. When you run this tool, you will be asked to select the bookmark folders you wish to scan.

checkplaces_options

Choose your bookmark folders and run the scan. The time taken to scan will depend on the number of entries you have, and on completion it will display a detailed results. Finally, click on the Delete button to remove the links with errors.

checkplaces_results

CheckPlaces is an experimental addon, so you will require to login with your Mozilla account in order to install it. If you don’t already have one, then sign up for free.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

5 free ways to create a mobile version of your website

The number of people who browse the Internet on their cell phones is on the rise and if your website is not accessible via mobile phones or is not mobile friendly, you are losing a large portion of potential traffic.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

File Destructor – Online dummy file creator

Why would you want to create a dummy file? “To escape the deadline you’ve got to prepare a report or finish your homework by putting the blame on your faulty computer”, explains the creator of File Destructor 2.0. They have got a point.

Back in the good old days, it was possible to get away without doing your homework by claiming that your dog ate it. You can’t use that story any more because now it’s just a matter of taking out another print. And who print reports anyway? We create Word documents, spreadsheets, presentation and pass these in their original digital copies. So if you have been playing on your Xbox and neglecting your work, the only way to save yourself is to put the blame on the computer.

file-destructor

File Destructor is an online service that allows you to create dummy files with a chosen extension (like doc, zip, xls, ppt and a bunch of others) and arbitrary size. The file looks good from the outside but is actually made up of junk. Now you just have to pass this file to your teacher or boss as your completed report. “It doesn’t open? Oops, it must have gone bust ”. A little knot on your brow and a puzzled expression will go a long way.

Actually, there are a lot of ways to create dummy files – one method is right there on your Windows machine. To create any file of any size, just issue the following command at the command prompt.

fsutil file createnew C:\final_project.doc 100000

This will create a file called final_project.doc on the root of your C drive having a file size of 100,000 bytes or about 98 KB.

dummyfile2

There are other tools as well like NOD32 Dummy File Creator Utility, Seedling Dummy File Creator and Dummy File Creator. They all do the same thing.

There is yet another way to create fake corrupted files. Just take any existing file of your required size, make a copy of it and open the file in a Hex editor. Some free Hex editor that you can use are HexEdit, Cygnus Hex Editor and Hexplorer.

hexeditor-dummy

After you open the file, just delete a big chunk of data from the file and save it. There you go, you have successfully corrupted the file. Try to open the file to see whether it has really got corrupted. If not, repeat the steps. Finally rename the file to make it look legitimate. 

Happy goofing!

SafeHouse Explorer hides your files in internal and external drives, optical discs and iPods

There are a large number of disk encryption utilities and software to protect and hide files on your computer or thumb drive. Recently, we mentioned one very good tool called My Lockbox and also explained how you can hide complete drives using a registry tweak. Here is another very good encryption utility.

SafeHouse Explorer is a free encryption software that can protect files residing on not only on your internal hard drive but external drives, memory sticks, network servers, CD/DVDs and even iPods. It also supports U3 Smart Drives.

safehouse

SafeHouse Explorer creates hidden private storage areas on your local hard drive or external media that can be accessed only through the program’s interface and only after you enter the correct password. After you enter your secret password, you access your files using a familiar Explorer-like interface

safehouse-explorer

To start you have to first create SafeHouse volumes by clicking on ‘New Volume’ on the program’s window and specify the location and size of the volume. If the size your volume is going to increase in future you can choose to make the volume resizable. The good thing about this program is that you can create multiple encrypted volumes and these volumes can be moved from their original location to another part of the hard dive without losing any data contained within it. SafeHouse Explorer can also be run as a stand-alone executable file without needing to be installed, meaning that it can be run directly from USB drives, burnt to an optical disc, copied to your iPod and so on. It’s one of the most flexible encryption utility you will ever find.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Project management and collaboration with OfficeZilla

Perhaps one of the best thing that came out of the Internet is the ability to collaborate and work together on a project. While services like Google Docs or tools like CoWord help you to collaborate with other users on a single or group of documents, they are insufficient when your project involves lot more than co-authoring a few Word files.

OfficeZilla is a free project management and collaboration service that provides you a single place from where you can manage and supervise your entire group and the project. OfficeZilla comes with a comprehensive set of tools from chat rooms and forums to To-do lists and calendars. When you first create your group you will asked to select the ones you want to include. Once you create the group, you automatically become the administrator of it.

officezilla1

Before you create a project, you might want to add users to the group. This can be done by adding and inviting users from the Admin control panel.

oficezilla-admin

On the left column you will notice a whole lot of tools for collaboration work. By going to the Project Manager section, you can create a new project or task in a flash. You can create different directories for different tasks and projects, upload files from your computer to Officezilla’s server to share with your group members.

For communication it includes a chat room, an email system with POP3 access, forums and private messaging. Other tools include calendars, to-do list, resource page where you share useful web links with your group, and a Knowledge Base with which you can create a database of the most commonly asked questions and other helpful tips for your co-workers.

Another interesting feature is a the availability of RSS feeds for various sections of OfficeZilla allowing you to keep tab of the progress of the project.

Overall, a good tool for both private and commercial use.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Qimo - Linux for kids

Want to introduce Linux to your kids at a tender age? Then you should give them Qimo. Qimo (pronounced “kim-oh”) is a new Linux distribution, derived from the popular Ubuntu distribution, that is geared towards children aged 3 and up. With over sized icons and shortcuts to games lining the bottom of the screen, the interface is specifically designed to make navigation easy to the youngest of users.

Qimo comes pre-installed with free and open source games that are both educational and entertaining, with many more educational titles available for download. The distribution is available as a Live CD but can also be installed on a system – it needs just 192 MB to install.

qimo-desktop

Qimo-GCompris

Qimo comes from a Florida based non-profit charitable organization QuinnCo, whose goal is to help the special needs of children and low-income children by giving them fully-functional computer systems. QuinnCo’s founders Michael and Michelle Hall are husband and wife who are parents of an autistic child.

QuinnCo's computers come almost entirely from donated hardware, which are repaired, wiped clean of their existing files, and installed with Qimo. They even  arrange pick up of any donations of hardware in the Central Florida area, including computers, monitors, printers, internal and external components. So if you live in or near Florida and have any old hardware lying about, consider giving it away to this amazing couple and their organization.

By the way, if you happen to be a software developers with experience in C or Python, then you can even work for them as they are looking for a developer (at the time of release of the first version of Qimo, which is February 18, 2009) to help improve and add to the suite of games included in Qimo.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Linux From Scratch – Learn how to build your own Linux system

Linux From Scratch is a project, or rather a book that teaches you step-by-step how to build your own Linux distribution entirely from the source code. The primary goal of LFS project is to educate people about the inner workings of a Linux system, rather than helping you create a usable Linux distro for your home use. You would be better off using some precompiled Linux distribution if you want to develop anything serious, but for learning LFS is perhaps the best way to do it.

lfs-logo

To keep LFS small and focused, the book Beyond Linux From Scratch (BLFS) was created which presents instructions on how to further develop the basic Linux system that was created in LFS. It introduces and guides the reader through additions to the system including networking, X, sound, printer and scanner support. References to other documentation are made throughout the book but a basic understanding of Linux and it’s commands is required before you dive into this book.

LFS

Linux From Scratch Live CD (Image credit: The Coding Studio)

In addition to LFS and BLFS books, the Linux From Scratch project provides a number of resources to assist you in Linux building. The Cross Linux from Scratch describes cross compiling and Hardened Linux From Scratch focuses on security enhancements like use of Stack-smashing protection, PaX and Address space layout randomization using grsecurity. Cross Linux from Scratch provides the necessary instructions to build a base, command line only Linux distribution. The CLFS also addresses advanced techniques not included in the LFS book such as cross-build toolchains, multilibrary support and alternative hardware architectures such as x86-64, Itanium, SPARC, MIPS, and DEC Alpha. Hardened Linux From Scratch focuses on creating a more secure version of the original Linux From Scratch as its main purpose, including embedded systems.

Linux From Scratch also has a custom Live CD built specially to use as a platform to build your new Linux distro, so that you don’t have to mess your existing Linux installation. The Live CD includes all the necessary development tools and packages mentioned in the book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

suDown brings Unix like sudo to Windows XP

Windows XP by default assigns administrator privilege to the first user account you create after a fresh Windows install, and as most personal computers are single user based they end up running all applications with elevated privileges including viruses and worms. Microsoft decided to solve this by introducing the UAC (User Account Control) to Windows Vista but it turned out to be so aggressive that most users kept it turned off, which brought everything back to square one.

Unix based systems has a better approach. The rule with Unix is that you never use the root (administrator) account for everyday work. A Unix user uses a limited rights user account for everyday tasks, but when the need to make system level changes arise they can quickly change the privilege level of their account to another user or mostly to the root account by using a command called “sudo” - short for superuser do.

sudown-auth

suDown is an open source tool for Windows XP that brings the benefits of sudo to the OS. sudown creates a trusted users group called the Sudoers group that has lower privilege but can be temporarily given administrative status. By including your administrator account to the Sudoers group you effectively transforms your original administrator account to a Sudoer account which is still an administrative account but runs in a low privileged environment. Your current account will be automatically added to the group the first time you use the sudo command. Alternatively, you can add or delete user accounts from the sudeoers group through the Computer Management panel in Control Panel.

sudown-sudoers  

sudown-context

When the user needs to run a program with administrator privileges, they have to right click on the executable file and choose sudo from the context menu. Once the account password is entered, the sudown client calls the sudown service, which temporarily escalates the user's group permissions to the Administrators' Group, but only for the specific program being run. The password is also cached for 5 minutes making easier to run multiple applications with higher privileges.

This makes using the limited user account in Windows XP much easier. The best part is, you can continue to use your administrator account for everyday work as long as it is a part of the Sudoers group.

And like Unix, sudo can be executed from the command line too. Just precede the file name with “sudo”. Example, C:\>sudo winamp.exe

The difference between suDown and the inbuilt function “Run as” is that with suDown you can run applications under the context of your user account and not
with another one's. This means that the launched application sees your user account's environment, your Desktop, Start menu and Documents. When you install a software through sudo, you remain the owner of the installed files and registry keys and the icons will be placed on your desktop. suDown is a much better application than “Run as”, and is a great way to bring UAC level security to Windows XP.

There another application similar to suDown called sudowin, but I haven’t tried it.

Related: Run applications as non admin in Windows XP to avoid malwares

Discover free tools to open files of any extension with OpenWith.org

Have you ever received a file from someone and you don’t know what program to use to open it? Or have you ever found yourself with a file with a proprietary file format but you don’t want to use the commercial tool associated with that file? Say your friend sent you a disc image saved with the extension .NRG because he uses Nero but you don’t. So you open Google and start searching for free tools capable of opening .NRG files and end up downloading half a dozen different tools and wasting an hour of your life. Here is a quicker solution.

OpenWith.org is a free software (yes, it’s also a website) that help you quickly find the best free tools available to open files with any extension. OpenWith.org adds itself to the context menu of Windows explorer so all you have to do is right click on the file and click OpenWith.org – How do I open this?

openwith-context-menu

This launches the program’s search tool and after quickly connecting with their online database, it provides you information about the file and gives you a list of free applications that you can use to open the file. If that application is already installed on your system, it will say Installed. Otherwise it will provide you a download link. Clicking on it will directly download the application installer – no need to go to the publisher webpage, no opening of browsers.

openwith

Once the download completes it automatically opens the folder where the application was downloaded to so that you can install it.

OpenWith.org is particularly useful for users who aren’t as tech savvy as you are, like your parents and other older people. But it’s equally useful to a seasoned computer user. And even if you choose not to install OpenWith.org, you can still bookmark the site so that if you ever happen to stumble upon a file that you really have no idea about, you know where to look for it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

SeaTools – Hard disk diagnostic tool kit from Seagate

When the world’s largest and most trusted hard disk manufacturer releases a set of tools to perform diagnostic test on your hard disk, surely you can’t refuse to use. SeaTools, from Seagate Technologies, is a comprehensive set of diagnostic tool that helps you quickly determine the condition of both internal and external hard disks of either your desktop or notebook computer. SeaTools can test not only disks manufactured by Seagate or Maxtor (which is now acquired by Seagate) but hard disks from any manufacturer. So whether you have a Western Digital hard disk or a Hitachi hard disk, it doesn’t matter – you can use SeaTools.

seatools

SeaTools can perform the following tests on a hard disk.

  • SMART Check – It’s the most basic test where the status of the hard disk is determined from the S.M.A.R.T monitoring feature built in on the disk. Almost any hard disk health monitoring utility can perform this test.
  • Short Drive Self Test – In this test the drives run a thorough diagnostic routine that is built in to the hard drive's firmware. This test is completely data safe and can take 20 to 90 seconds to complete.
  • Long Drive Self Test  - This test is more comprehensive than the Short Drive Self Test as it checks each and every sector on the drive. Because of this, the test takes about 4 hours to complete.
  • Short Generic – This test does a quick scan of the hard drive for possible errors making random read tests.  
  • Long Generic – This test is extensive and scans the entire drive and may take several hours to complete. The long generic test has the capability to repair bad sectors on external USB hard disks.

Apart form the above tests, SeaTools has a couple of Advanced Tools that allows up-gradation of the drive’s firmware and disk format.

Most of the diagnostic tests are safe to perform, meaning that there is no loss in data and the tests can also be aborted. Care should be taken only when using the Advanced tools.

SeaTools is available for Windows, Linux and DOS.

Monday, March 9, 2009

nCleaner – Junk file cleaner, startup manager, system tweaker and optimizer and more

If you are tired of managing several tools for doing several different system maintenance tasks, then here is a good tool for you - nCleaner. You will notice that the application is named similar to the popular CCleaner – another junk file cleaner. But this is where the similarities end. nCleaner goes beyond the capabilities of CCleaner making it a perfect supplement to the missing PC maintenance options on Windows.

nCleaner has 4 main sections – a system cleaner, a junk file cleaner, a system tweaker and a startup manager. Additionally, it has a Security Advisor that alerts you of settings that can pose security risk to your computer like leaving remote registry turned on, or enabled messenger services etc. The Security Advisor also fixes these problems for you. Then there is a file shredder to permanently remove deleted files from the hard disk making it impossible to recover these by file recovery programs – an option you might require if you wish to remove private files from the hard disk, or wipe the entire disk before selling it.

nCleaner

Let us take a brief look at four main section of nCleaner.

System Cleaner – This is a comprehensive set of tools that can clean every nook and corner of your hard disk – all kinds of history like search, run, media player, MS Office, recent documents history, browser history (Firefox, Opera, IE), clipboard data,  IM history (Yahoo messenger, MSN, ICQ, Skype etc). System Cleaner also clears cookies and fixes the Registry.

Junk File Cleaner can scan your entire hard disk or selected partitions for unwanted files that includes empty files, old files, backup files etc. There is a quick scan mode that saves time by searching on only those locations where these files are known to exist – program files directory, documents and settings directory and the Windows directory.

The system tweaker consist mainly of registry tweaks to enhance the performance of Windows and protect the privacy of the users. If you are unsure about which options to use, there are three different profiles to choose from – suggested, performance and system default.

The startup manager lets you manage which applications get to load at Windows startup. You can also manage system services and various registry entries that are executed at startup.

Other features that needs to be mentioned are a scheduler for performing all kinds of cleaning operation, a disk free space monitor and keyboard shortcuts to clear temporary files.

nCleaner is free and works with Windows XP, Vista and 2003.

Convert Microsoft Word into a multi-user collaborative word processor with CoWord

Collaboration software are essential in today’s business world as businesses are no longer confined to a single geographic region. Group collaboration software gives the entire business team access to business documents and files from anywhere on the world, thereby allowing them to work together despite the vast physical distances existing among the individuals. Collaboration software aren’t just limited to businesses – any person can make use of these tool where group activity is required but all members of the group cannot be physically present at the same location.

CoWord is a Microsoft Office addon that transforms MS Word into a real-time multi-user collaborative word processor. With CoWord, you and your entire group can access and edit the same MS Word document at anytime over the Internet and the changes made to the document are reflected immediately for all users to see. CoWord changes Word from a single user application to a multi-user platform. The good part is - CoWord is free.

CoWord has two components – a server side application and a client side application. The server component is to be installed on the computer which functions as the central repository – the one which is authorized to hold all documents. The client component is to be installed on all the rest of the computers from where the documents are to be accessed. The server computer should also have a hostname or a static IP address so that other users can connect to it over a network.

coword-server

Server application

Setting up and configuring the server is extremely easy. The sever administrator creates password protected user accounts for each individual who will access the files, and assigns permissions to them that includes uploading and downloading documents, deleting files and creating directories. Using the assigned username and password an individual can connect to the server and begin accessing files restricted by the limitations set by the administrator for that individual.

coword-client

Client application

Each person logged into the network sees an extra toolbar on MS Word giving them access to various tools required during collaboration. For instance, they can highlight the changes they make to the document so that it’s noticeable to the other users working on the document, or enter into a private mode where the changes are not transmitted to other users. They can also create checkpoints during editing, undo changes they made or even undo changes made by all others.

coword-toolbar

The sever admin can see which users are currently logged into the network and even kick them out of it. Log files are available showing information like time of login, time of logout, files accessed and so on.

For collaborating MS PowerPoint files, there is CoPoint that uses the same collaborative engine that runs CoWord. CoPoint has to be installed separately.

Both CoWord and CoPoint are so simple to use that anybody with absolutely no knowledge on networking and server software can install and use it. Word 2007 users will be disappointed to learn that CoWord supports only MS Word 2003, XP and 2000.