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Twelve Days of Christmas: Portable Apps

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Hello, and welcome to Day Two! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

USB memorystick from openclipart.org

I think this one of the best things I have for you; even if it’s not something you need right now, you may make a friend’s day if you know someone who needs it. PortableApps.com lets you install small, “light” versions of free programs for everything from word processors to web browsers, audio editors to IM programs, utilities to games. It can solve four big problems for ESL and EFL teachers:
  1. Using an office computer that won’t let you install applications? No problem–these apps can run from the Documents folder, which you usually have access to, or from a USB stick.
  2. Using an office computer running non-English Windows, but not comfortable in the other language? Just snag some English apps from the site.
  3. Using a lot of different adjunct office computers or internet cafes? Stay safe and comfortable by keeping your personal information and preferred settings in portable apps on a USB stick and running them from there, especially a web browser and a word processor.
  4. Deskwarming for hours, days, or weeks on end? Create amazing materials for class, write a textbook or a novel, chat, play games, watch video files, and more with a variety of apps to help you pass time productively and/or pleasantly. (EDIT: Naturally, I wouldn’t suggest anything doing non-work-related unless part of your job simply entails being at your desk, and you’ve already done all you can do to be prepared–which is unfortunately all too true for many teachers.)

Just to repeat the main point: these programs are small and “light” so that they don’t have to fully install themselves on the computer. Although the PortableApps.com touts the idea of running them from a USB stick, you generally don’t have to–if you use the same work computer every day, you can usually install them wherever you like inside the Documents folder, if that’s the only folder you can change on your work computer.

EDIT 7 July 2010: Flash Drive Reminder is a small, freeware program that will alert you if you start to shut down or log out of a Windows computer without removing your USB stick (flash drive) first. Great idea! Here’s an explanation with a screenshot on Lifehacker.

PortableApps.com’s applications are meant for Windows environments since few people find themselves in a Mac-only work situation (particularly one where they can’t install their own software), but if you are in that situation…uh, do tell us about it! Especially as a teacher–that’d be a new one on me. But if that’s you, there’s an option for you too: FreeSMUG Portable Applications. (Yes, as a Mac user I agree that “SMUG” is not a good choice of acronym!)

You can still nominate a great free resource for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I’d really love to get feedback if you find any of these useful!

(I previously mentioned PortableApps.com in An Alternative Software Sampler, but I didn’t address its full potential nor mention its Mac counterpart.)

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

You never know where a one-on-one lesson will wind up. Last week, an attempt to help my youngest student (who’s in high school) get started on a paper wound up with an excursion into the world of open source and alternative software. N-chan’s laptop runs a Japanese operating system and a Japanese word processor, and it’s a bit of a disaster trying to set up papers the way her teacher requires them to be set up. As is to be expected, the teacher is quite rigid about things like spacing (1.5 lines), margins (1 inch), font sizes, etc.

However, N-chan’s word processor is set up for A4 paper and Japanese spacing conventions. We’ve tried to fix things before, and it kind of worked, but not very well. To my surprise, even line spacing is a kind of cultural idiom. In Japan, apparently, it’s done by entering the total number of lines one can fit on a page at that spacing. This makes sense, but our attempts to convert from A4 to 8.5 by 11 and then to 1.5-spacing didn’t work out. Maybe if I could read Japanese better, I could have found a way to switch it to American-style line spacing, but no luck. As a last resort, I suggested downloading the English version of OpenOffice.Org so that she could simply work in English. (I prefer NeoOffice, but she doesn’t have a Mac.) She got permission from her dad to download it and install it, and it seems to be working out OK so far. When she clicked to download it, it detected her Japanese OS, so I first had to force it to download the English version (which it proceeded to automatically download from the “nearest” server at KAIST in Korea! Oops!). Then we had to change its settings to use inches instead of centimeters, again because the installed program detected a Japanese OS. I felt compelled to tell her “Inches are not better than centimeters–actually, centimeters are probably better than inches, but your teacher is going to give you instructions in inches. So we need to use inches.” (When I’m telling a student that she needs to stop using something that she’s used to and start using something else, I feel that it’s critical to point out when it’s NOT because the previous way was wrong.)

After that I showed her where to set up the margins (OOO defaults to .79 inches for some weird reason) and line spacing. Next week I’ll make sure it’s still running smoothly for her, because now that I know there are interesting differences like how line spacing is calculated, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of looking in the right place to find the setting you need to change. I knew there were vocabulary differences–for example, another N-chan’s father told me that Japanese word processors use a verb that means “paint” rather than “highlight”–but now I’m curious about all the deeper differences.

Anyway, helping students download and set up a free word processor such as OOO or NeoOffice may be a good idea if their native-language version is causing problems with their assignments. Have you ever tried this?

An Alternative Software Sampler

Even with educational discounts, software can be expensive. However, a lot of people aren’t even using name-brand software anymore. I don’t think I run any Microsoft products on my computer these days, and you don’t have to, either. While there isn’t a satisfactory substitute for everything, there are for a lot of things. (By the way, make sure to read to the end of this post for a really useful link if you travel and use internet cafes and library computers, or shared school computers.)

Here are just a few (I’ve tried to only list cross-platform ones so that most people will be able to use them). Most are free; some ask for a small fee or donation.

  • Office applications, including word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets: OpenOffice.org (cross-platform, including Windows) and NeoOffice (OS X) do pretty much everything we want them to. They can open .docx and .xls files, export as .pdf, save so that Word users can open files, edit Powerpoint documents, etc. In fact, both are so much like Word that you still have to go turn off all the annoying autocorrect features. Ugh! But at least there’s no paperclip … I have no more compatibility issues than I had when I used Word itself. Support for multiple languages, including Asian languages (some features built in). Very familiar interface. Free to use; optional donation.
  • Web browsing: Firefox (cross-platform) is safer than Internet Explorer. It’s less prone to viruses, etc., and less prone to crashing. It also has a lot of great features that, admittedly, IE eventually gets around to copying (like tabs). It has more useful add-ons, like Rikai-chan, which lets me read Japanese more easily. More about Firefox sometime in the future.
  • Sound editing: Audacity (cross-platform) is a free sound editing and recording application. It’s particularly popular with TESOLers doing podcasts (here’s a tutorial). It’s fairly easy to use.
  • Statistics: The R Project (crossplatform) was mentioned on Metafilter as a free substitute for expensive stat-crunching licenses, and may be useful for researchers. I haven’t used it myself.
  • Course management: Sakai (online) is a free alternative to Blackboard and its ilk. Designed by actual educators and researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Berkeley, I really recommend giving it a try (Blackboard is such a mess).
  • Instant messaging: Pidgin (cross-platform) and Adium (OS X) are wonderful if you’re trying to stay in touch with friends, family, clients, and students around the world. Both applications put EVERYTHING in one wonderful chat interface. You don’t have to worry about whether different people are using Yahoo, MSN, AIM, or whatever anymore. I use Adium, which even lets me have both my Yahoo! Japan and my Yahoo! chat names signed on at once, and multiple accounts (for my teacher and real-person identities) with the same service. Additionally, it’s free of ads, which most of the proprietary free services aren’t.

These are just a few of the free and open-source programs out there. As for graphics, no one seems to be able to agree on a decent all-around package that’s also cross-platform. Your best bet is probably to search Lifehacker for your specific need (vector graphics, font creation, photo editing, 3D graphics, etc.) and see if they have a recommendation for your operating system. In general, Lifehacker and Ask Metafilter (may have adult content, textually speaking) are good places to find safe recommendations.

Another bonus of using these applications is that many of them are smaller than their commercial counterparts, so they take up less room on your hard drive. Many of them are available in even more stripped-down forms at Portable Apps, so that you can put them on a USB stick and use them on, for example, a school computer running Korean Windows and all Korean applications, or in an internet cafe where you really shouldn’t trust their software. (Internet cafes, library computers, etc., are favorite places for hackers to install keyloggers and grab your passwords…) Great for travel!

P. S. I was thinking of doing a conference presentation on this topic one of these days, but I’m not sure how interested people would be. What do you think?