Mac Hack at War

MacFormat Magazine
Laptop Reporting 29-06-1994

If laptops work for reporters in war-torn Bosnia, they should cope with the urban and rural jungles around the rest of the world where most of us have to work.

See also: Apple Macintosh

See also: Kitbag Lunacy

The last three years of war in the Balkans have been as primitive and brutal as anything since World War 1. But high above the ruined landscape, its airspace hums with the flow of the greatest concentrated barrage of digital information ever known. While snipers snipe and drunken militiamen lob grenades and shells into houses and hospitals, thousands of diplomats, governments, soldiers, UN personnel, spies, aid agencies, reporters and newsrooms bombard each other with digital information from their laptops.

I've been working in and around Balkan front lines since the wars started, reporting to British radio, TV, newspapers and agencies. And, like many other journalists, I watch my PowerBook greet each insane new day with its familiar, inane, Happy Mac grin. Amazingly it has never once failed, crashed or frozen on me.

In this region with its primitive telephone system – often non-existent – and with intermittent mains power at best, you need to be able to carry everything from your toothbrush to your communications system in one shoulder bag. There are no spares, no repairs, no systems managers. Here, at least 46 journalists have been murdered [more than 70 by 1996] and some people would literally kill for a Mac.

This is where basic precautions and a well-planned kit of hardware, software and reliable peripherals meet their ultimate test.

I chose a Duo for four reasons: first, as a light weight portable (4.2 lbs) which docks at home to complete a full desktop set-up; second, because I find it simpler and more intuitive than DOS or Windows; third, because I can label filed reports with instantly recognisable 32-character titles with colour codes for days of the week; and fourth, because I knew System 7 from my days as a national magazine editor.

Every journalist should, of course, think twice before risking his little pink bottom just to get a story, but he's useless unless he can get the story back to the newsroom. So, for fear of communications failures and crashes, simplicity, flexibility and reliability become paramount and one develops a routine before heading abroad.

Preparation for the worst, preventative medicine and good housekeeping seem to reduce the chances of disaster. Just before leaving I do a total backup set of my Hard Disk using Norton Utilities and leave it with my solicitor. I then trash from my Hard Disk anything I won't need.

I ditch the games and gizmos which might cause corruptions and conflicts, including specialist applications. I prepare a severely stripped-down set of backup System disks, dumping any non-essentials and all fonts except Geneva and Palatino and Teachtext. I tape these, plus a copy of Disk Tools and stripped-down copies of Norton Utilities and ClarisWorks, in a waterproof envelope to the underside of my disk-drive. Other disks carry copies of CPU, DiskDoubler, AllDay, PICTify, CanOpener, Disinfectant, ListFiles, QuitIt, PC Exchange, [Eudora & Netscape] and BeHeirarchic.

I then create a new backup set of my reduced Hard Disk to be packed separately from the Duo. These conventional drag-and-drop copies can, in a crisis, be opened on a Mac or PC without Norton Utilities.

I print out a hard copy list of essential addresses, personal information and an index of my entire Hard Disk (using ListFiles, updated every week or so) and keep them in the lining of my jacket. The index helps in the reconstruction of a Hard Disk if one has to recover lost files from a crash. It may also persuade suspicious immigration officials that you've nothing worse to hide than your disastrous games' scores. Furthermore, I put aliases of applications or documents I most commonly use into the Apple Menu Items and precede the most important with [1], [2], [3], etc., so they appear at the top of the alphabetical list. BeHeirarchic helps enormously too. Why didn't System 7.1 think of that? I then set the QuitIt control panel to close automatically any application with which I'm no longer working. This saves power and improves speed, as does de-selecting 'Calculate Folder Size' in Views (Control Panels).

Using Connectix Powerbook Utilities I set the options to give me a simple choice of two operating formats: maximum performance and maximum battery savings. I disable the security options (password or graphic) because these can only raise suspicions at check points and because professional intelligence snoopers can always bypass commercial security software anyway. The panic setting can, however, be useful. I then pack two bags.

The first, a large travel bag of clothes and supplies, includes a Hewlett Packard DeskWriter mono/colour printer (without a sheet-feeder) and my Hard Disk backup set. This I leave in a reasonably civilised base such as the Adriatic city of Split.

My shoulder bag carries everything else I need, including washing kit and a change of clothes, for anything up to a week at a time. It also contains the Duo, power adaptor, separate floppy disk adaptor, floppy disk drive, a fast 14,400 bps external Pace Microlin fx 32 Plus data/fax modem and a selection of cables, connectors and blank floppy disks. Everything can be powered from car batteries [see: Land Rover split charge units], the mains or rechargeable batteries.

To reduce bulk I take two very short (four-inch) mains leads for my computer's power adaptor: a British square-pin plug on one and a European plug (or whatever the local standard is) on the other. On more permanent trips abroad, I take a 4-gang power block with me to run all my UK-plugged equipment so I only have to fit one local plug to the power block's mains cable.

To complement the hardware, my work and entire Hard Disk (60MB of essentials) rely entirely on four key programmes: 4-Sight Fax Solo for data/fax send/receive communications, HP software for my printer, Microsoft Word 5 for seamless read/write compatibility with a PC user, and ClarisWorks 2.1 [now v.4.0] for everything else.

ClarisWorks provides Word Processing for news stories, Databases for things like diaries and massive address lists and Spreadsheets for expenses and accounts which, through Publish & Subscribe, automatically register and adjust to wildly fluctuating exchange rates and a variety of currencies. Occasionally I use Drawing to make simple maps to help newsrooms locate the scene of events and use PICTify to select detailed areas of my maps for transmission as PICT files.

In theory the task of filing reports is easy. You first establish how, when and where you'll find a working phone line – which can become a full-time occupational nightmare. Failing that you calculate how willing an editor will be to pay up to $75 per minute to receive your gilded prose over a satphone – if you can find one. You then get down to the writing. If the material is a voice piece for radio or TV, you simply ring through to news traffic intake and read it off your screen – with no ums and ers. For newspapers you call up the copytakers and read off your story which they simultaneously type into the news organisation's news queue. This can be time consuming and liable to errors.

Otherwise, if newspapers, radio, TV or agencies require a text report, you are faced with a choice – data, fax, e-mail or network? By sending a file as data your words enter directly into the receiving organisation's information system and come up on its newsroom screens. You simply plug your computer to your modem, your modem to a phone line and then, through ClarisWorks (Communications), type in a phone number and select Connect. You're greeted by the host computer's request for passwords, protocols and filing codes. You choose Send File, select the document for transmission and the host computer confirms receipt.

Linking to a phone is always easy if you carry a small screwdriver and a cable with a US-style RJ11 plug on one end and a pair of crocodile clips on the other. Anywhere from the back of the phone to the wall socket you find and expose the two main carrying wires and clip on to their copper cores. In hotels and offices you may find a third wire (their internal system) but by trial and error you'll find the two which work. I find it's best not to ask permission to hook on. They either complain or try to charge you extra and as far as their switchboard is concerned your laptop appears to be a normal phone and is charged accordingly.

The advantage of data transmission is that it gets your copy exactly where you need it instantaneously and there are seldom compatibility problems. Its drawbacks are that most newsroom systems, such as ATEX, take and display only unformatted text and cannot yet cope with editable graphics, spreadsheets, databases, etc. Furthermore, when sending data, you generally need to know some technical gibberish in advance – such as what baud rate, parity, data bits, stop bits and handshake the receiving system requires. Here ClarisWorks is unhelpfully complicated. When you and five colleagues have driven fifteen miles across bandit-land to find the one working phone, these really are the last things you want to have to think about when they too are desperate to get their copy back to London and are twitchily nagging you to hurry up.

The best way to deal with this is to set up, in advance, separate data communications documents for each organisation you work for, enter the correct settings for each, and save them as stationery documents in a stationery folder with an alias of each on the desktop. Simply double clicking on the alias establishes the phone link.

An alternative to data is fax. It's slower and needs special software (in my case 4-Sight Solo) which severely slows down my computer. Furthermore, it delivers itself in paper form in neglected corners of newsrooms where it can languish for hours. Someone then has to copy-type it into the main information system before an editor will see it. Fax is therefore most useful when I want to receive documents from other people or when I want to send spreadsheets, databases, graphics, etc.. Its great advantage is that all that 'data stop-bit and handshake' nonsense is decided by the modems.

Email should – no doubt will – become the easiest method but, believe it or not, very few newsrooms are yet geared up to receive it!

The final alternative, network file transfer/sharing, is one I avoid like the plague. It never ceases to amaze me that there's no simple, reliable method of sharing files between Macs, PCs and mainframes. Even linking two laptops side-by-side can involve carrying numerous cables to link non-standard ports. I could link my Duo with the Apple network at The Observer for example, but that doesn't link me directly to the news queue mainframe. Until there's a standardised, worldwide platform for networks the whole industry should be ashamed of itself. File sharing is currently the journalistic equivalent of friendly fire.

One solution is to bypass land-lines altogether. Theoretically, across bits of Europe, you can hitch your Mac to a GSM pocket phone via a PCMCIA interface card which simulates a modem. These interfaces are available on the latest range of PowerBooks. You then send wire-less faxes or data across a phonenet. The trouble is that the greedy networks have mostly chosen to cover only lucrative, highly populated areas and even these are patchy. When they say they cover 90% of the UK, that's population not geography which is what matters. Until we have a comprehensive, fail-safe system no journalist will rely on it. But by that time we may be bouncing laptop signals via the sort of low-orbiting satellites which currently assist maritime navigation. When that happens anyone, anywhere, could be a news reporter and journalists will face an identity crisis.

Back in the current stone age, much of my work is done in cramped and difficult circumstances, so, though I often write direct to my Hard Disk, I prefer ideally to write to a floppy and then save a copy to the Hard Disk. Thus, if the Duo fails me, I can then continue to work on another machine or give the floppy to someone to transmit for me. The vital thing is to remember to Save constantly. MacFormat will earn our undying love when it gives us an 'auto-save' utility on a cover disk – Microsoft Word has one built in but ClarisWorks still does not.

Whatever happens I make backup sets and go through a housekeeping routine almost daily. This involves running Disk Doctor from Norton Utilities to correct any system glitches, running Speed Disk from Norton Utilities to optimise my Hard Disk, and rebuilding the desktop (Restart holding down Option+Command until the prompt dialogue appears). The whole process takes perhaps 15 minutes but increasing the processing efficiency provides significant battery savings each day. Further savings are gained from using a utility like CPU and still more by clever use of Publish & Subscribe. This function ( ClarisWorks) allows you to make an entry in one document which automatically makes time-saving, identical entries in quite separate documents.

Preserving one's Mac from theft is another problem. I carry it with me everywhere covering it with peel-off stickers to make it look less attractive. At border crossings I have copies of proof-of-purchase documents to deter underpaid functionaries from exacting official or unofficial import taxes. And there are numerous tricks for attempting to hide sensitive information. A simple one is to reduce text to font size 4 in a text frame in a drawing application, then choose a white text colour (your text appears to vanish) and make the text block appear as the chimney in a drawing of your favourite steam locomotive. To recover it, you have to remember where you put it, select the text frame, choose a black text colour and enlarge the text to a readable size. But nothing on a Hard Disk is ever safe from savvy prying eyes, of course.

All globe trotters should carry an international phone chargecard and subscribe to a good internet service provider. On-line time can prove lengthy and the Net's information and services are still US-dominated and typically provincial in attitude as a result. But for limitless information it's good value.

And finally, what would make our lives easier? Well, now that we have superb digital stereo sound, I'd like an AM/FM/SW/VHF radio receiver built into my Mac. I'd like it to be able to record and edit lengthy sound interviews for transmission direct to my studio. I want to use a normal colour TV as a monitor without expensive interfaces and to receive TV images on my screen. I'd like System 7 or its successors to give me a halfway useful World Map and a background auto-save option in the menu bar so that I can't lose my work regardless of the application running. And why can't the hardware manufacturers agree on standardised ports? It's pointless making the laptops smaller, lighter and more compatible if we then have to carry a spaghetti of cables just to link up with each other. And finally, please, Mr Claris, would you kindly give us a word-count in ClarisWorks so that nice underpaid journalists can persuade tough old editors that we've delivered the number of words demanded?

CHRISTOPHER LONG has been a general staff and freelance journalist since 1978; a London affairs specialist until 1987; an editor of newspapers and books; a researcher for books, radio and TV, and, since 1983, the founding editor of two national magazines. Since the Balkan conflicts started in 1989 he has been a specialist front-line war reporter for British press, radio & TV.

Happily Mr Claris must have read this article because he answered my plea in v.4.0

Related to the above was this letter, published in MacFormat magazine in 1994:

Kitbag Lunacy

"As a foreign correspondent I carry a PowerBook Duo, a Hewlett Packard 310 printer, a Pace Microlin fax-modem and, as a back-up, a WorldPort data-modem plus two small tape recorders. Each of these miracle machines comes supplied with a separate power adapter which is often larger and heavier than the device it's supposed to power, each has a different plug size, and each operates on a different DC output.

In a war-zone with no electricity, like Bosnia, I can use all of them on batteries, of course, but the batteries run down or need to be recharged at some stage. Furthermore, at home, my computer, monitor, modems and printer occupy five power sockets. Add a CD-ROM player, two tape recorders and a telephone answering machine and my basic system is using nine power sockets with eight bulky DC adapters.

This is crazy. Surely there's a manufacturer who can produce one small AC/DC power adapter with a set of multiple output sockets, each of which can be user-configured to provide the correct volts/amps for a range of devices?

Thanks to this lunacy in my kit-bag, my right shoulder is now three inches lower than my left shoulder."

Christopher A Long
Somewhere in London

To which the editor replied: "So you have a pronounced leaning to the right then? Understandable, I suppose, with such a strong case for some entrepreneur to meet the needs of the market. Anyone know a solution?"

© (1994) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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