Tag Archives: journalist

Still looking for the perfect laptop

So this is going well. I’ve only had my new laptop for about six weeks and already I’ve wrecked it. Well, wrecked is maybe a bit strong. But getting out of the car on Friday I dropped my bag (more on the bag another time). Later I discovered I’d chipped off a chunk of the corner of my new Dell Vostro. It means that the plastic supporting the screen is cracked and the casing surrounding one of the speakers in the base is broken. Maybe it will be fine, or maybe it’s the beginning of the end.

The upshot is that having initially been pretty impressed by my Dell Vostro I now seriously doubt that it will be strong enough to survive on the road with me.

I don’t think I’m very fussy but after being a foreign correspondent for seven or so years now I’m getting to know what I need. Basically what I want is a computer built along the following lines:

  • 13-inch screen – small enough to be portable, but not as fiddly as a netbook for those times I need to knock out a swift 1000 word
  • sturdy – I’ll be on the road, bumping around. Sometimes I’ll be typing in the back of a 4×4, so I don’t want the screen bouncing around with every bump of the road
  • simple – I don’t need your fancy graphic cards or masses of Ram. I’ll just be using a browser, a word processing application and a few simple bits and bobs
  • good battery life – for those times when I’m far from power sockets (or when the electricity is off at home)

I’m still no closer to working out what might be the best laptop for my needs. a 13″ screen puts me into the realm of business computers, which ups all the specs.   Anyway,  in the past few years here’s what I’ve been using:

Sony Vaio – can’t quite remember the exact model, but it was the s series and I bought it in 2006. Initially wasn’t sure. But this served me well. Pricey and overspecced. Quite heavy. But although the optical drive packed in after a couple of years it proved sturdy and reliable. Came with loads of irritating Sony software though. Eventually died a couple of years ago after four years loyal service

Lenovo Thinkpad Edge 13 – sturdy build, as you’d expect from this company, and I did without an optical drive to save weight. But the performance was lousy.   Crashed all the time until I uninstalled Google Chrome. But still very slow. Never managed to get it to work with my Thuraya satphone. Maybe because it was running the 64-bit version of Windows 7. If I hadn’t moved to Pakistan I would have taken it back to the shop to get them to sort it out, maybe reinstall Windows and what have you. Its hard drive packed in on way home from Libya last year – so maybe not as sturdy as I’d hoped. Anyway, thieves took it off my hands a couple of months ago. Think I paid about £500 for it.

Dell Vostro v131 – Again it cost me about £500, which I thought was pretty good here in Islamabad. Performance has been excellent. This time it’s running 32-bit Windows 7. I’ve done without Word in favour of OpenOffice and Chrome works wonderfully. The backlit keyboard will be useful when I’m filing in the dark. The fingerprint scanner doesn’t seem to work, but really who cares? The real issue, however, is that its lightness translates into flimsiness. The screen wobbles in the breeze. And a simple spill has broken the casing, which is a shame because so far I like it.

Ultimately, if I knew a bit more about computers I’d have a stab at sorting my own specs and getting someone to build it for me. I’d willingly pay a bit more for a sturdy frame and a small screen, and then compromise on performance and software. I’m sure there must be a way of getting everything I need into a computer for say £350. Any suggestions?

(And Apple fans will note from my requirements that whizz-bang fancy Macs are really not what I’m looking for…)

One Step at a Time


Mogadishu's ruined cathedral

I haven’t done a very good job, but in my posts about Amanda Lindhout and Nigel Brennan I’ve tried to avoid using a know-it-all, old-Africa-hand tone. But the truth is that from the moment they were kidnapped it was obvious that they had only themselves to blame. There’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself in at the deep end and pushing yourself to the limits to bring back back an otherwise unreported story. The problem is when you put other people at risk through naivety and inexperience.

The hack pack in Nairobi had never heard of Lindhout and Brennan when they disappeared. That in itself was a bad sign. Anyone heading to Mogadishu should take a few days talking to people who know the place – the Somali journalists exiled to Nairobi, the international press corps who have parachuted in and out, and the NGOs and UN agencies who try to keep aid flowing into a broken country- to find out the latest security information.

Hotels in Mogadishu come in and out of fashion. Who has the best security and which part of the city is free from shelling?

Which stringers are operating in Mogadishu, and who has the best contacts and feel for the situation in the ground?

These are the sorts of thing you learn to ask over weeks and months reporting from increasingly hostile places. My first trip to Somalia was carefully organised by the United Nations. There were two more trips to Baidoa, at a time when it was relatively stable. Only then – and at a time when the fighting had calmed – did I feel confident enough to make a trip to Mogadishu.

In contrast, Lindhout and Brennan seemed unprepared for what they faced.

This piece in The New York Times sums up the lure of wars for the newbie…

Wars have long provided a way into journalism for some adventurous aspiring reporters (as well as death, kidnappings and injury for others). And courageous, if inexperienced, freelancers have brought important stories to light that might otherwise have gone unreported.

But it goes on to spell out how the pair lacked experience

Robert Draper was already in Somalia on an assignment for National Geographic when Ms. Lindhout and Mr. Brennan arrived. Mr. Draper said that it was apparent that she had been the driving force behind their trip. She had met Mr. Brennan backpacking in Ethiopia. While Mr. Brennan was in Somalia as a photographer, Mr. Draper said, it was not clear whether he had ever sold any photographs.

“She was eager to make a name for herself, and I don’t say that as a negative,” Mr. Draper said. “But a lot of the early and intermediate steps one does to become a journalist, she bypassed. Amanda was very eager to go where the action was.”

They were released after 15 months. But not without a hefty chunk of cash being paid to their kidnappers. Paying up is the only way to get people out. Yet once again the armed gangs are richer and emboldened. Journalists mean cash. And for the long suffering people of Somalia, the two-decade cycle of violence shows no signs of ending.