Download a la Mode 7: Grab Bag of Tools

by Miguel Guhlin - mguhlin@yahoo.com

Over the years, I've spent quite a bit of ink--how quaint--writing about database-backed web sites. Database-backed web sites allow you to have blogs, wikis, image galleries, and a host of other tools. And, yet, setting up a MySQL database can be daunting for some server administrators. What if you could just install PHP and then have the ability to host blogs, wikis and/or image galleries? Sometimes, there is power in simplicity. (You can find tutorials on installing PHP on Windows servers everywhere on the Web; here is one to start with: http://www.tjitjing.com/blog/2006/05/php5-with-iis6-on-windows-server-2003.html

What I like about these kinds of solutions is that:

  • You can edit a few files on your computer, upload/send them to a web server that has PHP installed on it (most do), and you're off and ready to go.
  • You can easily backup these solutions by downloading/getting a copy of the files themselves. This eliminates the need for greater server access, something that network administrators may feel uncomfortable providing to large numbers of teachers.
  • It's easy to enhance the solutions or change their look and feel because each solution has an active community developing enhancements for it.
  • Requires a lot less expertise to maintain the solution and can even be setup on a local computer in your classroom or lab.

This article answers a few questions about setting up these tools without a MySQL database backend, including the following:

1. What blog and/or podcast publishing solutions can I setup?
2. What wikis can I setup?
3. What image gallery solutions exist to let me display photos?

This article also addresses a few other questions, such as:

4. Do you know of a free program that will convert Photostory WMVs to something that will play on other computers like Macs and GNU/Linux?
5. Looking for a handy cross-platform file manager?
6. How do I save Flash video files to my computer for later viewing?
7. How do you hack DVD Region Codes?
8. How can I edit images using free web-based tools?

Question 1: Blog Solutions sans MySQL

Although there are plenty of freeblogging solutions on the Internet (e.g. Blogspot, Bloglines, Wordpress.com, Edublogs.org), many are blocked by district censors. While you can setup a blog using a free blogging platform--contact me if you want specific suggestions or read previous issues of TechEdge--here are a few blogging solutions you can upload to your server space. The blogging solutions are as follows:

  1. Simple PHP Blog - http://www.simplephpblog.com/
  2. BBlog - http://www.bblog.com/

What is neat about these solutions is that you can access them from any computer, login and start writing, adding images, etc. They offer you more flexibility than a solution like Thingamablog and require less overhead than a database-backed web site installation. And, if you're interested in publishing just podcasts--without the blog--you can use a free open source software solution called Podcast Generator. It is a no cost, web based podcast publishing tools that allows you to put media files (audio-video) via a web form. You can also add information about the podcast, and generate an RSS feed that includes iTunes specific tags. It also features a web administration tools. Birdville ISD is using this tool; you can see it online at Thomas ES Podcasts (http://www.birdville.k12.tx.us/schools/116/podcast/).

Question 2: Wiki Solutions sans MySQL

Although I really enjoy using Wikispaces.com--a free, Wiki solution that supports educators by providing them free, no-advertisement spaces--I am always on the search for solutions teachers in less-enlightened districts can use. That is to say, free wiki hosting solutions like WikiSpaces.com, WetPaint.com, among others, are usually blocked in K-12 school districts, even though they should not be. Exciting projects like the Flat Classroom Project at http://flatclassroomproject.wikispaces.com--an international collaboration between a teacher in Georgia and another in Singapore--are more than possible with such a wiki.

Here are a few wiki solutions that can be installed on your school web server--just transfer the files to your FTP space--without problems. I have used all of them, and I confess that my preference is PmWiki, which by the way, is the same wiki that David Warlick (http://www.davidwarlick.com) uses for sharing his workshop handouts (http://handouts.davidwarlick.com).

  1. PmWiki - Here's an example of PmWiki (http://itls.saisd.net/tilt)
  2. Dokuwiki


Question 3: Web Image Galleries

The John Lennon Bus came to San Antonio on Tuesday, 02/27/2007. Video from the site was captured while students worked away inside the bus producing a song. Photos were taken. Part of the fun is figuring out how to display those photos on the web. Instead of publishing a static photo album, I also wanted to be able to easily add photos to an existing web-based album. One way would have been to crank up Dreamweaver or Fireworks and have it create a photo album. Another would have been to use the free JAlbum (http://www.jalbum.net).

Instead, I thought I'd try a simple PHP image gallery. Again, the benefits are that it doesn't require a MySQL database backend. The results of the image came out looking great. I used MiniGallery2 listed below, but the others offer different features.

  1. TinyWeb Gallery - http://www.tinywebgallery.com/en/index.htm
  2. Singapore Image Gallery - http://www.sgal.org/
  3. MiniGallery2 - http://www.minigal.dk/
  4. BolGallery - http://bolgallery.free.fr/
  5. Simple Picture Gallery Manager - http://spgm.sourceforge.net/


Question 4: Converting PhotoStory WMVs

Microsoft has provided educators with two wonderful tools for creating digital stories (see my resources on digital storytelling at http://mguhlin.wikispaces.com/dstory)--PhotoStory and MovieMaker. When I made a digital poem on MS Photostory, I was disappointed because I had to play the WMV file created by PhotoStory on a Windows computer. It would not play on either a GNU/Linux or Macintosh computer, regardless of what I tried. I consulted experts and no one had a solution for me. Then, in a casual Skype-conversation with Wes Fryer (Speedofcreativity.org), Wes shared a solution he had heard from someone else.

The answer was a free Windows utility entitled "Free iPod Video Converter-Freware converts DVD AVI MPEG WMV RM to iPod Video." It worked great on the digital poem adaptation by Rosalie (my daughter). View it in MP4 (just use the free VLC Media Player) format.

Download it at http://www.ipod-video-converter.org

Question 5: Cross-Platform File Manager

When you work with lots of documents, presentations, sound files, moving folders and files around can be a bit of a pain. I've grown accustomed to using some kind of file manager to move things around.
If you're looking for an easy way to manage your files on Windows, Mac and Linux, then you are in for a treat.

I've been working hard to clean up my data files. It's amazing what you accummulate or duplicate with poor filing. One of the key tools I like to use in filing is a two-window commander type program. Using these tools dates back to my late teens with using computers, so I grew up on computers using all these diferent file managers. If you've followed this blog, you may already be familiar with some of my other favorite file management tools. These tools make managing your files a lot easier than wading through stacks of folders on your computer's desktop. These allow me move files, delete, zip/unzip fairly quickly and without fuss.
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I decided I'd look around for a "Mac Commander" type program, and what do you know, I found one program that works on all 3 platform, is Java-based, and has a small footprint (you can keep it on a USB flash drive). I've already fallen in "love" with it, and I'm excited about using it on other platforms. Try out the free MuCommander!

Download it at http://www.mucommander.com/

Question 6: Saving Flash Movies

It seems everywhere you look, FLV is the way video is being shared on the Web. I thought that I was out of luck, that I'd never figure out the intricacies of converting FLV to a more "traditional" format I could remix in MovieMaker or iMovie. A new web-based service called vixy.net allows you to enter the web address of an online FLV video (think YouTube) and it will automatically download and convert it to one of five file types (MOV, AVI, MP4, 3GP, or MP3) which can then be saved to your computer. It works quickly and enables you to save the movies so that you can use them later (e.g. at school where you probably cannot access YouTube.com).

Question 7: Hacking DVD Region Codes

Ok, hacking may be too strong a word to use, but it's all about getting your blood pressure going, right?
As a new Macbook owner, I encountered my first DVD Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) on the Macbook. However, you don't have to be a Mac owner to appreciate how to deal with vendor-imposed "digital rights management."

I was playing a DVD for the first time on my Macbook. I had briefly read about region codes issues on a Mac, but had not been familiar with them. So, I did a little research and encountered this explanation:

  • DVDs are generally region-locked in order to discourage international use (i.e. so studios can control film distribution for home use in different countries). The first time you insert a DVD into your Mac's DVD drive you are prompted to initialize the drive's region code. If at a later time you insert a DVD coded for another region, you will be prompted to re-initialize the drive to that specific DVD's region code. You can only change the drive's region code 5 times; after that, your drive remains locked in that region code.

Here are a few software programs that may help you overcome DVD issues, most of which are legal:

'''Option 1''' - Rip the movie to your computer's hard drive.

Use the free cross-platform solution, Handbrake. Handbrake is a "multiplatform, multithreaded DVD to MPEG-4 ripper/converter." You can download it at:

*Mac version:
http://download.m0k.org/handbrake/HandBrake-0.7.1-OSX.zip
*Windows version:
http://prdownloads.sourceforge.net/tivo-mplayer/HandBrake-0.7.0-GUIAndCLI-20060115.zip?use_mirror=kent

While Handbrake is available on Linux, another program--DVDRip--also works well. Debian distribution users (e.g. UbuntuLinux, SimplyMepis) can apt-get install dvdrip. You might want to follow these instructions:
http://www.exit1.org/dvdrip/doc/install.cipp

'''Option #2''' - Use the free VLC Media Player. Whether you are on Linux, Windows or Mac, use the VLC Media Player. Mac users should be aware of the following information:

When you insert a DVD that has a different region than the one the drive is set to, you will get a dialog box for the native DVD player application. If you click cancel at this point, the DVD is ejected. Instead, hold down the Command-Option-ESC keys to FORCE DVD player to quit (you can set DVD player not to open when a DVD is inserted in System Preferences).

Once you have done this, use VLC media player to play the DVD.

You can download it at http://www.videolan.org/vlc

Question 8: Web-based Image Editors

I've been exploring a variety of web-based image editors, including the following:

1) Block Posters - Upload an image from your computer and choose how many sheets wide you would like your poster to be once printed.
Access it online at http://www.blockposters.com/default.aspx

2) Picnik - With Picnik you can quickly edit all your online photos from one place. It's the easiest way on the Web to fix underexposed photos, remove red-eye, or apply effects to your photos. It lets you pull images from Flickr, yuor computer, from a web site URL, Yahoo or Flickr Search, or a webcam if you have one connected.
Access it at http://picnik.com/


3) Snipshot - Includes basic editing tools like crop, rotate, resize, as well as image adjustments like contrast, brightness, saturation, sharpness and hue. 100% web/browser-based, edit big pictures—up to 10 MB, or 25 megapixels.
Access it at http://snipshot.com/

4) Wikipainting - Enables you to paint images collaboratively.
Access it at http://wikipainting.free.fr/mediawiki-1.6.5/index.php?title=Main_Page

5) ePassPort Photos - Lets you create passport photos.
Access it at http://www.epassportphoto.com/

6) Fauxto - Image editing reminiscent of Paint. It will require a free account sign up (2 seconds to register).
Access it at http://www.fauxto.com/

7) LiTha-Paint - Image editing among other features.
Access it at http://litha-paint.com/