Stuff you should have

We did a “bootcamp” for the online masters program. They are required to purchase an Adobe Suite, but there were other things I wanted them to have, or at least be exposed to. So I wrote the following up as a guide. What do you tell your students to get?

Most of the items on this list are either free (as in both beer and speech) or services offered as part of the “cloud” (or “Software as a Service”).

Locked Down Computers

Some of you may work on Windows machines for which you do not have administrative access, and therefore are not able to install new software. If that is the case you should download the PortableApps (Win) software that allows you to run applications from a flash drive. If you have a very security conscious working environment, the administrator may have locked out applications running from the CD or a USB port, but in most cases, you can run many of the programs below. (U3 is a proprietary system that provides similar functionality.)


If you aren’t on Skype, you’ll need to sign up. It allows for text chat, audio (VoIP), and video chat.

There are a number of other IM, VoIP, and Video Chat services, of course. For text chat clients, I use Adium on the Mac and Trillian on the PC (which is OK). Again, lot’s of possibilities for clients that take on multiple IM protocols. If you are traveling or not on your regular computer, Meebo is a good bet.

Remote Viewing

There may come a time, though perhaps not in this course, when you want me to look at your screen, or want me to do something on your computer. Or, you may want to be able to access your computer at home while traveling or at work. This is possible using a protocol called VNC. For me (or someone) to be able to do this, you need to run a VNC server, like TightVNC for Windows or Chicken of the VNC for Mac.


There are lots of free email hosts. Despite the privacy issues, I use and like Google Mail. For some level of security, Hushmail is a useful service.


The latest version of Firefox is a great browser: quick and effective. It’s not perfect, but it does a good job. There are some sites that refuse to comply to web standards (notably, those run by Microsoft and at least some of the functions of Blackboard), so don’t throw out your copy of IE or Safari. Not that you can, in the former case.

One of the best reasons to install Firefox is to make use of the plugins. In particular, I think the following plugins are extremely useful for this program:

* Zotero is the best citation manager I’ve used. It’s simple, and gets the job done without a lot of extra fuss. If you install just one plug-in, this is it.

* Firebug is very useful for viewing and debugging a page layout when designing for the web. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play well with Zotero, so you might want to install it in the Spring (and disable Zotero).

* IETab. As noted above, Firefox works with 99% of websites, but some site designers still design for Internet Explorer. This makes it easy to open up a tab in Firefox that runs IE, so you can work more easily with such sites.

* PDFDowload lets you work with PDFs more easily in Firefox

* Delicious plugin, integrates your bookmarks with Delicious (see below).

Those are the essential plug-ins in my book. There are hundreds of others, many of them worth looking at. I use FoxyTunes, StumbleUpon, Zemanta, TwitterFox, a couple of video download tools, and several others.

Text Editing

For editing documents without the application doing strange stuff to the text, you need a plain text editor. In particular, when it comes to writing HTML, CSS, or scripting, you need to be able to cleanly edit text. Windows has Notepad and Wordpad, but there are better replacements. Notepad++ and Notepad2 are both great for Windows, and if you don’t have a lot of extra needs. For the Mac, the (not free) Textmate or Text Wrangler are good.


We will be using the WordPress blogging system on the QUBlogs host. Head over there to sign up. (There’s a screencast on how to do it, as well.)

Social Networks

These are often sites that are either for loafing, building community, or standing in as an enhanced Rolodex, depending on who you talk to. I recommend being on LinkedIn for professional reasons, and I am, of course, on Facebook, where we will be setting up an ICM community page (unless one of you does it first).

Ning is kind of interesting.


Folksonomies occur when people tag things and then share the tags. Delicious is the one we will be using, and it is a kind of public replacement for bookmarks. There are dozens of similar systems, and tagging is making its way onto a range of other kinds of places, from newspapers to peer-production to retail sites.


There are a number of microblogging platforms. The “status” line on Facebook or on your IM client might be considered a kind of microblogging: a way of saying if you are “available” or what you happen to be doing at the moment. This semester, I will ask you to try using Twitter. Twitter has been undergoing some growing pains, but it is still one of the most widely used microblogging systems.

Jott is an amazing service that lets you do microblogging or text messaging via voice.

Closely tied to microblogging are “awareness” sites like Upcoming, Brightkite, and Last FM.


For photo manipulation, it’s hard to beat Photoshop. The Gimp is a powerful (free) piece of software, and worth trying if you don’t already have a copy of Photoshop. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and Mac (Intel), but it’s a slightly painful install on the latter.

There are lots and lots of photo hosting services, I continue to prefer Flickr and will ask you to set up an account there, and try posting a picture.


Audacity is a very popular audio editor (and what I use to prepare the lectures).

Utterz allows you to voice microblog via phone.


There are applications for video editing that are no/low cost for Windows and for Mac. Windows supports the Windows Movie Maker, and Mac the iMovie. Both of these are fine for simple editing jobs, though each is somewhat limited in the effective size they can handle, complex edits and transitions, the nature of the “tracks” used for editing, and the codecs they can read and produce.

Two very useful free piece of software can help here. For the PC, Super, despite the strange web page and cryptic instructions, is a very useful tool in converting file types. VLC is a must-have video and audio player, that can also transcode many videos.

In terms of actual editing, FLOSS is a bit behind the curve of commercial providers. Jahshaka is working toward a solution here, and Blender can be used for 3D effects, or you can try editing in Jumpcut. But for now, there isn’t a good replacement for middle-range video editing software.

YouTube is ubiquitous. Revver has a better licensing scheme. Viddler lets you tag/comment anywhere within the video, which is very convenient sometimes. And Seesmic is a microvlogging platform.


There is a lot of stuff going on up there!

An aggregator is a tool that gathers syndicated content from around the web. Think about a newspaper with no journalists (many are very close to that now). It might pull stories from a few different wires (AP, Reuters, Xinhua, Kyodo, DPA, etc.) and from some syndicated columnists and cartoon artists, and maybe from a company that collects classified advertising, and assemble this all into a daily paper. An aggregator does that for web content, pulling together RSS feeds, in one place where you can easily read them.

For many years I used Bloglines, but I finally switched to the Google Reader, and that is what I would recommend.

Be sure to add this blog to your aggregator and visit your aggregator throughout the semester so that it doesn’t get lonely. Also, I strongly recommend adding your fellow students to your aggregator, to make it easier to see what they are writing about.

There are other “kinds” of aggregators. Yahoo Pipes and Google Gears allow you to do fairly sophisticated things with the feeds and other data you download, mashing them together in interesting ways.

The newest type of aggregator is a personal aggregator like FriendFeed, which tracks your friends’ Twitter,, blog, flickr, and everything else activities. And it allows for comments. Many have remarked that the new interface for Facebook bears a more than passing resemblance to FriendFeed.

Web Development

I am a big fan of the “less is more” group here. Aside from a good text editor, you will need an FTP client like Filezilla. We’ll be doing web programming in LAMP, and you can download the AMP part of it for Windows or Mac as XAMPP. (This can also go on your PortableApps flash drive!) We’ll be using the third P, Python.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 9/14/2008 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Very helpful list of resources, thanks!

    I thought I’d mention one more for photo-editing. While Gimp is very feature-rich, it’s also a bit tedious to install and use. The editor I use most often is the free Paint.NET program. It’s available for Windows and I highly recommend it.

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