Tech Tuesday: Joomla


Joomla, a Web Platform with Many Uses

Joomla is a free content management system, which is used as a framework to create websites. It can manage all sorts of content, including text, photos, music, and videos. It’s a free open-source application and has been used for websites of all descriptions, from web portals for large corporations to personal pages. As a Linux fan, I’ve made extensive use of free software. However, open-source applications can be tricky, so it helps to have a little technical knowhow or a competent advisor. On the good side, Joomla saves you from the need to learn web-related languages such as HTML, Javascript or PHP.

Installing Joomla is easy. Many website companies (I’m currently with Go-daddy) provide it as a built-in option that to install from their control panel. If not, download the package from and transfer it to your server. I won’t get into specifics, as there are plenty of videos on-line with step-by-step instructions.

Since the framework is free, designers make money by selling templates, which provide professional formatting and graphics. Last time I checked, the prices were mostly around $75. See for examples. There are also many free templates available, including a handful of standard templates that come with Joomla itself.

Commercial templates are usually optimized for a specific business, such as a travel agency, employment recruiter, etc. For personal use, a free template is usually fine, though I’d recommend using a standard one. The others are not always well supported. Even when building your own, I’d recommend browsing the template sites to get ideas.

Choosing a standard template doesn’t mean you’re stuck with one look. There are many factors you can customize, including colors, fonts, and effects. One of my favorite effects is the slideshow which provides variety in the images your site provides to the world. If the template doesn’t include this capability, you can use a plugin as described below.

Although Joomla is powerful, it can be maddening, because although it provides a common set of controls, the specific template determines which characteristics can be modified and how. For my main site (this blog uses WordPress, another framework which I’ll address in a later post), I recreated the look of a free template called Mystique-FJT in the standard Atomic template.

Another feature of Joomla is its ability to use plugin modules to provide specific functions such as file backup, event calendars, or managing customer input. If your site is for business, a paid, well-supported plugin is worth the investment. Make sure it works with your current Joomla version, and that it’s kept current, as you may need a new plugin version for the next Joomla update.

Working with Joomla requires patience and the ability to take detailed notes. For example, it took me several hours to figure out how to set my main page to the current article. When I wrote a new main-page article again after a few months’ hiatus I realized I hadn’t mode notes for the procedure and had to figure it out again. The Joomla user forum is a helpful resource, but you need to do your homework first. Learn the technical terms for Joomla’s features and gather information on your own setup before posting. Many forum exports are volunteers who understandably lose patience with “lazy” questioners.

Joomla is a powerful tool for creating a general purpose websites. It takes a bit of tech savvy, so you may need help if you’re a web design newbie.

If you like technology you’ll enjoy my novel Centrifugal Force, in which computer hackers plot to overthrow the government.

The Penguin Makes Music

My fourth and final overview of open-source software for creative people involves music. In my youth I had many years of musical training, which until recently was going to waste. It’s not that I didn’t have the means – I own several electronic pianos – but I wasn’t motivated to play on a regular basis. Linux changed that, by making it easy to compose my own music, which makes things a lot more interesting.


Linux has no shortage of musical tools available on-line. One thing that differs from the other areas I’ve discussed so far is that with music, one must use several tools in tandem. This is more in the spirit of the UNIX/Linux tradition of discrete components, rather than an all-in-one application such as “The Gimp” image editor or Libre-Office Suite. This allows for more flexibility but also makes things more complex. I’ll list the open-source tools I use for creating music, and you can be the judge.


JACK (the JACK Audio Connection Kit) is a sound daemon (server) which provides the backbone of all music applications listed below. It’s like a virtual patch-board, allowing the interconnection of audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) data between “JACK aware” applications. Unfortunately, not all programs are configured to use JACK, which is why it’s not yet the de facto Linux sound system. Because it takes control of your system’s audio, you will need to turn it off to play sound from your web browser, for example.

* QjackCtl

This is a graphical tool for controlling JACK without the use of typed commands. QjackCtl creates a list of audio devices, both hardware and software, that can be used as inputs and outputs. It lets the user define input and output connections between them, like a virtual patch bay. It’s not strictly necessary but makes JACK a lot easier to use.

* Fluidsynth

In order to create music on a computer, you either need to record sound from an external device, or to create sounds using a digital specification. “Sound Font 2” is a popular format for the latter; it’s been widely distributed on-line. Like JACK, Fluidsynth doesn’t have its own graphic interface. I found it interesting that Fluidsynth’s default sound fonts contain all the same instrument voices (piano, organ, guitar, trumpet, etc.) as the built-in selections on my Yamaha electronic keyboards. I’ve also found free sound fonts on-line which can produce other sounds such as percussion.

* Qsynth

This is a graphical front-end application for using Fluidsynth, much as QjackCtl is an interface for JACK. I haven’t used Qsynth extensively, except to select sound fonts (voices) for the MIDI sequencer application I’ll describe next.

* Rosegarden

This is the program I spend most of my time using. Rosegarden is a application for music composition and editing. It includes a MIDI sequencer, which can be used as an input to capture notes played on a MIDI instrument (such as my aforementioned Yamaha keyboards.) To do this, I invested in a bit of hardware, the E-mu Xmidi 1×1, a specialized cable which connects the twin round MIDI connectors on my instruments to a USB port on my computer. (I ordered one from for under $30.) If you’re new to this technology, I should note that a sequencer does not record sounds but notes (pitch, duration, attack, etc.) which can be mapped to any sound. This allowed me to make my piano sound like a guitar, ukelele, and an electric bass. As an alternative to Qsynth, you can install the Fluidsynth plugin, which allows you to map an instrument voice to a given track directly in Rosegarden.

Once your melodies and harmonies have been captured, you can edit them in several formats, including the standard sequencer matrix display and old-fashioned music notation. Having had classical training, the latter is my preferred method. This allows me to capture a melody on paper simply by playing it on the piano. Since I’m not very adept in improvisation, it really helps to have the music in front of me. Thus I can improve and embellish on that first performance, re-recording and re-printing it as many times as necessary.

Sadly, I had issues with bugs. In the Linux world, we install applications from the Internet using a command called “apt-get”; this fetches a version of the program created specifically for your current version of Linux. Because I use an older installation of Ubuntu (14.04) and don’t want to update until the next stable long-term Ubuntu is released next spring, I was “stuck” with Rosegarden 13.06. This worked fine for composing, but there were problems when exporting my musical tracks as sheet music. Therefore I downloaded and built a newer Rosegarden (15.12) from source code. It’s a task not for the faint hearted, but it fixed most of my problems.

* LilyPond

If you want to print out the musical scores you create in Rosegarden, the LilyPond program is the best way to do it. LilyPond is a music engraving program, which produces high-quality sheet music from the LilyPond-format (.ly extension) files you can export from Rosegarden. It’s a command line program which accepts a file called “” and converts it to “somefile.pdf” in Adobe Acrobat format, which allows it to be viewed onscreen or sent to a printer.

As I stated earlier, Rosegarden 13 had a bug in producing the lilypond “ly” input files. This caused the Lilypond program to become “confused” about how music was to be broken up into measures, to the point that it would sometimes make a line of music run right off the page! I was able to edit the “ly” files in a text editor to fix these issues, but that was a time-consuming annoyance that made it well worth upgrading to Rosegarden 15.

* JACK Timemachine

If you want to convert your new music into an MP3 file that can be played on your phone or iPod, there are a few more missing pieces. Rosegarden lets you play your music files over your computer’s speakers, but to hear it on another device, you need a “recorder” application such as JACK Timemachine. When you launch this program it appears as a device in the configuration list of Qjackctl. You connect the output of Rosegarden to the input of JACK Timemachine, and then play and record your piece, which is saved as an audio file in 64-bit WAV (w64) format.

* Sox and LAME

Bear with me; we’re on the home stretch. The aforementioned JACK Timemachine is a very simple program that only records music in one format. To change it into a more usable file, you need a music converter such as Sox (Sound Exchange) the “Swiss Army knife” of audio file conversion. Sox is a command-line tool that allows you to convert the w64 files into more playable formats such as WAV and OGG. Unfortunately the popular MP3 file format is patented and technically requires royalties to be paid; therefore Sox (being free of charge) does not include the MP3 plug-in. For do that you must recompile the Sox program from source with an MP3 plugin (requires a fair bit of computer expertise) or better yet, install the “LAME” MP3 encoder to do that last conversion. Why Sox can’t include this function, and yet it can be in LAME as a separate program, I have no idea. Leave that one to the lawyers.

I apologize for this long post and hope it hasn’t been too intimidating. If open-source music tools are complicated, they make up for it in their flexibility and power. Best of all, they’re free, with plenty of help available online. Remember, most of these open-source programs are also available for Windows and Mac. Happy composing!


Don’t Fear the Penguin, Part 3 – Linux Publishing Tools


At one time, Linux aficionados who write – especially self-published authors – faced the hassle of getting access to a system running Windows or Mac to get their books ready for publication. Those days are over. The open-source world offers increasingly powerful tools for writers. Though I’m not aware of a Linux version of the popular writer’s tool Scrivener at this time, I’ve never really felt a need for it, except for its handy e-book conversion feature. Now there are other options.

The first is Calibre, a general-purpose e-book management program created by Kovid Goyal. The program allows you to catalog your e-books, read them on your computer, and synch with your e-reader device. More important to me as an author is the e-book conversion feature. Calibre lets you import your word processor document, apply formatting, and generate features such as tables of contents. It also lets you view and manipulate the raw HTML code that comprises your book, which is really handy for both editing and troubleshooting. I want to give props to the program’s creator, because when I posted a question on the program’s forum, he answered it personally.

At this point I must note that there are two ways a writer can proceed in book creation, One way is to do the formatting in a standard word processor and a conversion application to get it ready. I’ve tried this in the past (on my first book Centrifugal Force) and it was a troublesome approach. Conversion tools inevitably mess up some of the formatting, particularly if you’re using Open Office or Libre Office rather than Microsoft Word. The better approach is to do as little formatting as possible up front, saving if for the publishing program. With this approach it’s helpful to use unique and consistent text markers for specific features of the book, for example, to use asterisks or hash-tags to indicate scene transitions. These can be updated by using the search/replace features of the publishing program. This is how I did my second book, Fidelio’s Automata — and I didn’t have to reboot to Windows AT ALL to do the conversion.

This brings us to the topic of desktop publishing. For those of you have never used one (PageMaker and QuarkXPress ) are popular non-free options), it’s a whole different animal than word processing. Desktop publishing applications are focused on layout, and making the printed matter look good. Word processors do this, but not well. For example, I’ve gone through a rather involved process to make Open Office suppress page headers on the first page of each chapter. Another important consideration is that just-in-time publishers like Lightning Source require a very specific type of PDF (PDF/x-1a:2001) to be submitted for book manufacture. Yes, any good word processor can export a generic PDF, but can they embed fonts and do other necessary setup?

For desktop publishing, the Linux world has Scribus. In the past the program had a number of serious problems. The worst was that the stable version didn’t create the correct PDF formats; for that you had to use an unstable beta version of the program. As of version 1.4.5, this is fixed. Another weakness affects Scribus’ most powerful feature, its scripting facility, which allows you to perform repetitive programming tasks quickly. Scripts must be written in the Python language, which isn’t at all difficult for someone who already knows programming. The difficult is with the program’s library functions, which the script must access to do anything useful. The Scribus help files contain a reference, but it’s not thorough enough. It took me hours of tinkering to figure out how to do search/replace within a multi-page document. It’s also not totally intuitive how to insert or delete pages without corrupting the left/right formatting. As with most open-source programs, there’s an online forum; unfortunately most participants seem to be doing short works like newsletters or fliers, not novels. There are “how to” books for Scribus, but I hate buying a general-purpose book to learn one task. Sometime soon I will convert my notes into a quick step by step guide for novel creation, which I’ll make available for 99 cents on Amazon, along with my custom python formatting scripts.

As you’d expect both of these programs are also available for Mac OSX and Windows.

Next week’s installation, if I don’t get distracted by any wacky news events, will discuss Linux tools for musicians.

About the illustration: some people are crazy enough about Linux to get the Mighty Penguin Tux embedded in the skin. Tattoo by Kyle Dunbar.


Linux Art Tools for the Talented (and untalented)


The movie Naked Lunch would not have been nearly so dark if, instead of turning into a cockroach, the protagonist’s typewriter would have turned into an adorable penguin. So in honor of the second installment in my Linux posts, which deals with image manipulation programs, I decided to create one. Unfortunately, due to my lack of artistic talent, it ended up looking more like penguin roadkill than anything – but you get the idea.

For what it’s worth, I did the attached illustration with the GIMP, an open-source image editing program similar to Photoshop, without the hefty price tag. The name is an acronym, GNU Image Manipulation Program. (The word “Gnu,” which you’ll see applied to a lot of things Linux, stands for “Gnu is Not Unix,: a bit of computer geek humor.) Like many of these open-source programs, it has versions for Windows and MacOS as well as Linux. The GIMP has a steep learning curve, but you don’t need a manual, just Google. There are thousands of fellow GIMP users out there who are more than willing to help you. Like any serious imaging program, it lets you work with layers and transparency. I have used GIMP for finalizing the cover art for my last two books. Once the artist has completed the illustrations, I use it to add the title and author name, the back cover blurb, and the lettering on the spine. GIMP saves images to its own format, XCF, but you can export things as PNG, JPG, and all other major formats. When I imported the Fidelio cover art from a Photoshop file; it wouldn’t display correctly, but I was still able to extract the layers and paste them into a new document. All in all, the GIMP is a very powerful program.

Inkscape is another image program I’ve recently started using. Unlike GIMP, it’s not a photo editor but a vector drawing program. It’s more equivalent to Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. Vectors are not fixed-size pixel drawings; rather they’re abstract mathematical objects that can be scaled up or down with ease. I’ve got a lot of experience with the latter because I use it in my day job to create files for our laser engraver. Therefore I was looking for an equivalent program I could use on Linux. The first thing I tried was to import a Corel Draw file. It was only partially successful, as the “hairline” (zero width) vectors did not come across. It does far better if you export from Corel to SVG format. Inkscape does, however, have its own hairline vectors, a necessity for drawing “cut” lines for the laser. As with the GIMP, Inkscape also has versions for Windows and MacOS.

In the Linux world, one of the paradigms seems to be, why use an existing application when you can create your own? Consequently there are many open-source graphics programs to choose from. The ones I mentioned above are the ones I use the majority of the time. However, I can’t neglect mentioning a handy little program called xfce4-screenshooter, which in Ubuntu Linux pops up every time to press the Print Screen Key. It shows a thumbnail of your screen image, and gives you the option of saving it, copying it to the clipboard, opening it in a graphics viewer or editor, or posting it to ZimageZ, a free hosting site for images and photo galleries.

Penguin photo from


Emperor Penguin of the Arts


I think it’s safe to say that the days when few people had heard of Linux (and its Penguin mascot Tux, as shown above) are over. It still has a “for nerds only” reputation, which I would like to dispel. Over the years this free, open-source operating system has been adapted to run on almost every kind of hardware for just about every purpose. It’s now full of excellent tools for writers and artists, and musicians to the point where it can challenge Mac for the crown of the creative persons’ preferred OS.

I’ve been using Linux since the early 1990’s, not long after uber-hacker Linus Torvalds first created it, deriving it from AT&T’s powerful and versatile Unix operating system. At that time, it was a place where only true techies dared venture. Over the years Linux has evolved from an engineer’s toy to a tool friendly enough to be used by the masses. Though you won’t see it advertised on product packaging, Linux integrates easily with a wide range of hardware: everything I need to interface with my PC, from Android phones to MIDI keyboards.

Unlike commercial systems like Microsoft Windows, developers don’t need anyone’s permission to create their own distributions (or “distros”) of Linux. There are many, and I’ve tried most of them, but settled on Ubuntu, currently one of the easiest distros to install, maintain and use. (The name is a Bantu word meaning “human kindness.”) Ubuntu is available for free download from, though the site requests a modest donation to fund further development. Like all open-source projects, they also depend on the help of volunteer developers and testers to create these amazing projects.

Recently, though, another distro has become my favorite – Ubuntu Studio, available from Studio is a modified version of Ubuntu that comes pre-loaded with many tools (also free) that are useful for writers, artists and musicians. Though not all of my favorite programs are pre-loaded, most are easy to get, with an amazing tool called “apt.” Apt helps you find these applications on the Internet, and automates their download and installation. Another reason I prefer the Studio version is that it uses the older desktop-icon based user interface. The mainstream Ubuntu distro looks and feels somewhat like Windows 8, which I find rather annoying. As with most Linux distros, Ubuntu works on all Windows-compatible PC’s. The installer includes a tool that allow the user to shrink the Windows partition on their disk drive, so that a Linux partition can be installed alongside. When the computer starts up, it displays a start-up menu from which one can choose either Linux or Windows.

In the following posts I’ll detail some of the programs I use on Ubuntu in my creative endeavors. In compiling the list, I realized it was far too long for one post. For now, for the sake of those who fear they’d miss their Microsoft Office if they switched over, I’ll briefly mention the application that I’m using to created and edit this article.

Open Office and Libre Office are two versions of a free, open-source office suite similar to Microsoft Office, but not as gratuitously complicated. They provide excellent replacements for Word, Excel, and Power Point, which I use on a daily basis. These programs can inter-operate with MS Office by exporting Microsoft formats such as “doc” and “xls.” (The version I’m using can’t output the newer formats, such as docx and xlsx, but it can read and convert them.) Open Office (available from is the original, which I prefer because I’m familiar with it. Libre Office, which now comes standard on most Linux distros, was split off from Open Office by members of the original development team, but has a similar feature set and interface. By the way, these programs are, like many other open source applications, have available versions for Windows and MacOS.

As I anticipated, this post has gotten plenty long. Next week we’ll discuss free graphic application that are just as powerful as Adobe’s pricey products Photoshop and Illustrator.


“Fun” with Phones

Being an engineer, you might expect me to be an early adopter of technology. No thanks; I get plenty of that at work. I’ve had a cell phone for quite some time, but it was only last year that I finally got a smart phone. I chose Samsung, because it runs Android, which is Linux-based. Since it’s built on open-source software (unlike Apple’s over-priced proprietary gadgets) I expected an Android phone to be easy to upgrade. I was wrong.

Though I love the idea of DIY projects, I’m normally too lazy to be a do-it-yourselfer. Except for adding contacts, I left my Samsung pretty much unchanged. Then I bought a Bluetooth keyboard. My goal was to use the phone for social media, and since I’m a touch typist who hates on-screen keyboards, it seemed like a good idea. Then I discovered that Bluetooth keyboard support was broken on my Exhibit II model phone – and Samsung had no plans to provide software upgrades for that model, ever. If I wanted a newer OS, I was on my own.

If you think that upgrading a phone is a daunting process with a serious risk of damage, you’re right. I was undeterred. Android software is open-source, and there’s an army of volunteers who rebuild the new versions for older hardware. In the time since I got my Samsung, the current OS version (all of which are named for desserts, alphabetically) had gone from Gingerbread all the way to Kitkat. In the end, Kitkat refused to install, and I had to be content with the previous version, Jellybean. Finally, the Bluetooth keyboard worked! It only cost me about 10 hours of experimentation and frustration.

Finding and downloading the updated OS files was the easy part. The website was an invaluable resource. The site’s forums have instructions for unlocking and updating Android phones of all types. Unfortunately, many of the online “how to” guides suffer from what I call the “hometown cookbook” syndrome. Having cooked all their lives, contributors sometimes omit crucial details from their recipes, such as measurements, cooking times, and definitions of terms. The same applies to phone hobbyists. The instructions might say, “First install the Clockworkmod Recovery utility,” but not say how to do this, or which of the many versions to use. Not only did I have to track down the missing details, but I was led down the wrong path several times by obsolete or irrelevant explanations.

Eventually I got it all figured out. It was late and I was very tired, but my phone was finally ready, and I was eager to proceed. I booted it into recovery mode and started the Kitkat installation without first backing up my old system. Big mistake – it aborted with a mysterious error, and the phone no longer functioned. Now it was do or die. I have no land line, so I had to get it fixed, or shell out $300 for a new one. When I finally got a Jellybean version of the “Cyanogenmod” software installed and working, I promptly installed the wrong version of Google’s phone apps. This broke my on-screen keyboard, and once again I hadn’t backed it up. Contrary to on-line wisdom, that critical feature stayed broken even after I reinstalled the correct version of Google Apps. Good thing I had that Bluetooth keyboard; I used it to download a new screen keyboard app off the Play Store. Mission accomplished!

If you, too, are crazy enough to attempt upgrading your own phone, I strongly recommend the following (a) before doing anything, read several versions of the instructions, enough to get all the details, and (b) though it may be time-consuming, backup, backup, backup.