FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The tools of the new activism
In the course of our recent fundraiser I was asked about what tools we use to do what we do around here. There are a lot of little bits and pieces, but I’ll do my best to list what I use, what I’d recommend, and what I picked up for Moe this weekend.
It will come as no surprise that when it comes to picking a computer, I’ll recommend a Mac. An ordinary iMac brings plenty of power for anything you need to do to create pictures, audio, and videos. They’re more powerful than they look. MacBooks do alright as well, though they’re expensive.
But if you want to go more cheaply, there’s always the route I went with Moe, thanks to the donations we received, which is the Asus EeePC model 1005HAB. An Eee is small, relatively inexpensive, and will run MS Windows 7 or one of several Unix variants. It’s also possible to double its RAM to 2GB, which I did for Moe.
Of course, going out and buying a new computer isn’t an option for most of us, so below I’ll give plenty of software options for whatever you may already have.
Next there’s the matter of a video camera. I don’t own one right now, but Moe has often said that having one is essential for the would-be activist. Moe currently uses a Flip Ultra HD. Lighting is essential for good videos though, so on top of that we picked up a Dynex LED Video Light (which has universal mount support) and a Sunpak-Platinum Plus 11.5″ Mini-D Tripod to put it on. Good light plus HD resolution should yield nice enough videos.
For a still camera, there are a few different approaches to take. Most, if not all, video cameras these days will do double duty, so that’s an option that costs no extra money. I can’t speak to the quality, but surely it’s better than nothing.
A step up in quality without breaking the budget would be a nice mid-range camera like the one I have, the Canon PowerShot SX110 IS (I believe the 120 has succeeded it in the product line). It does well without breaking the bank should something happen to it. Moe has the PowerShot SD1200 IS which I assume also works well, being a similar model.
There are probably times when a good online reporter and activist might not want to be so obvious that he’s recording, and that’s where an audio recorder comes in. Again I don’t have one of these, as reporting isn’t my specialty, but Moe owns an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder VN-6200PC.
Sometimes you can’t be in person where you want to be, though, and that’s where phone and Skype interviews come in. For that you need a microphone, and my recommendation is just to get a decent headset, which has an advantage over a traditional microphone in that they can be gotten in USB models, and so are powered independently of your computer’s sound system, which might not be good enough. I have the Freetalk Everyman sold on the Skype website, and it seems like it’s going to hold up better than the cheapo ones I’ve tried and broken down before. For Moe we picked up the Microsoft LifeChat LX-3000.
With all these cameras and computers it’s good to have options for shuffling data around. So for Moe we picked up a pair of 2GB SanDisk SD cards, and a Dynex USB Mini Reader for them. Easy, portable, can be plugged into your own computer or one at Kinko’s.
Also, I find touchpads to be a very slow input method, so for when he can I threw in a Dynex portable optical mouse. The retractable cable seems flimsy but it works if you’re careful. I know because I have one of those in a USB cable variety, to plug my Blackberry into my dev laptop.
So many of these things are battery powered, so we also picked up Moe a Duracell Value charger, which included 4 AA batteries, and a pack of 4 rechargeable AAA batteries to go with it, which should cover his battery needs for his camera and lighting.
Basic photo cropping and sizing can typically be done with the photo viewer that came with your computer, such as Preview on the Mac or KView in Unix. I think even Microsoft even broke down and started shipping something fancier than Paint at long last. More advanced work can be done with the GNU Image Manipulation Program, available in Unix, Mac OS, and Windows environments. Additionally, a great tool for doing cutouts is a website: FotoFlexer. It works very well and is also free.
However some people swear by Adobe’s Photoshop line, and Moe uses Photoshop Elements, so if it’s worth it to you, go for it.
Audacity. Edit audio or just record yourself for podcasts. Enough said.
If you’re on a Mac, iMovie will do the trick. I think most Macs come with it.
If you’re on Unix, you might have to bite the bullet and learn Cinelerra, which is powerful but seems to have a steep learning curve. It’s also possible to get bootable CDs and DVDs which will let you use Cinelerra without running Unix on your whole computer, if you want the power without shelling out cash.
Windows users? No idea myself. Moe has Adobe Premiere Elements, which would also be available on the Mac if you really wanted it.
Audacity’s fine for recording yourself, but if you want to call somebody and do a phone interview with a good recording, or even just do an all-online chat, Skype is your answer. Skype-to-Skype chats are free, calling phone numbers from Skype costs a small amount, and receiving calls from phones to Skype costs a bit more. I’ve done the first two and they work great.
If you want to record Skype, what you do depends on your OS. On the Mac, use Soundflower to route the sound through Audacity. On Unix, use Jack to do that. On Windows, sorry, the best option I know isn’t free. For Moe we bought Powergramo Professional so that his audio recordings from Skype will come out clearly.
Below is a picture of the bulk of what we bought through the fundraiser. The light and tripod had to be mail ordered and are not pictured. The batteries and RAM are not pictured because I bought them today, after I took the pictures.