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PN in Practice: Software

PN looks at some of the free/cheap software tools that are actually used by the PN staff to do their work, in addition to complicated and expensive things like Photoshop and InDesign.

We’ve tried to be honest about what we actually use rather than just telling you about the most politically-correct Open Source software out there. If you have suggestions to share, please drop us an email or put a comment on the blog (www.peacenewslog.info). Peace News is interested in improving the online services available to activists.

Phone conferencing: Skype
Meetings by phone for freeish

We organised the Rebellious Media Conference mainly by phone conference; and Peace News Summer Camps are also mainly organised that way. While we used to use Powwownow, an expensive corporate landline-based system (dial into a number and use a code), our preferred tool now is the internet telephone system Skype.

If you have a computer, broadband internet access and a webcam (or a microphone-headphones “headset”), Skype is easy to set up and easy to use, but invariably has some glitches. If you buy some “Skype credit”, you can phone someone on a landline and include them. Skype is now owned, as of October, by Microsoft. We’ve never tried any of the Open Source alternatives.

ImageSkype: Free. Windows, Mac, Linux; Android, iPhone
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ****
Radical-ness *
Quirkiness **

Word processor: OpenOffice
The politically-correct alternative to Word.

To be honest, on some computers we use Microsoft Word, and some of the time we use EditPad, which is a brilliant free (for private use) alternative to Windows Notepad. Increasingly, however, we use the OpenOffice suite - its word processor is called Writer, and it does the job. Writer can open a wide range of text files and save them in another format. (Open Office also contains spreadsheet, presentation, database and drawing software.) Open Office is free and it’s Open Source. It’s so right on that it hurts.

ImageOpen Office: Windows, Mac, Linux
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ***
Radical-ness *****
Quirkiness **

Browser: Chrome
The go-faster browser.

The right-on choice for web browsing is Firefox (which is Open Source). Chrome is faster, so we tend to use that, when we’re not using Opera (see below) which is also very fast. Chrome is made by Google, the giant internet corporation. Its purpose is to get you to log into Google services within Chrome.

Advantage: easy access to Gmail, Google Docs and other free online Google services.

Disadvantage: Google keeps track of every search you do, as well as every Gmail email or Google Docs document you write, etc, as part of its market research, to enable it to target you with personalised corporate advertising. Like Firefox, Chrome has Adblock, an add-on which enables you to block out online advertising, despite the fact that Google makes its money from advertising not from search. Another plus: we like being able to search and navigate from the same box in Chrome.

ImageChrome: Windows, Mac, Linux
Usefulness *****
Ease of use *****
Radical-ness *
Quirkiness **

Email: Opera.
Automated email. (And integrated fast web browsing.)

A very individual choice here. We, the editors, have been big fans of Opera for many years. It does a clever job of email and it is one of the safest web browsers around at the same time. Among many other tricks, Opera sorts your different email lists into folders automatically and is, we think, aesthetically pleasing. People who like the ‘empty inbox’ approach will have a bit of difficulty as Opera does not use folders but only “smart” tags.

The outift behind Opera is Opera Software, an independent Norwegian company. The Open Source (non-corporate) email option is Thunderbird, which is also free, but we find it fiddly and ugly; and it’s really hard work to adjust some of the font sizes. We think Opera does searching email better than Thunderbird. Like Thunderbird, Opera has a good spam filter to get rid of the worst of your junk email. Opera is also an RSS feed reader if you are into that kind of thing, and is designed with a commitment to serving people with visual or motor disabilities. Opera is also good for people with low-bandwidth internet access (for both email and web browsing). (Trivia: we have a lovely pink “skin” or visual theme on our installation of Opera.)

ImageOpera: Windows, Mac, Linux
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ****
Radical-ness **
Quirkiness ****
Right-on alternative: Thunderbird

Collaborative editing:
Google Docs
How do you write a document with a bunch of people who are all in different places?

We’ve been using Google Docs since before it was called that (it was a charming little start-up called Writely). If you don’t already have a Google identity (such as a Gmail account), you will need to go to the Google search home page and click on the word “more” above the search box to locate Google Docs. Then “create an account”. You can write documents and share them with other people.

Unlike the wiki software used for the organising of the Rebellious Media Conference, it isn’t possible for two people editing at the same time to mess each other’s editing up, as Google Docs automatically saves what you are writing every few seconds. Another big plus is the ability to colour your text with a wide variety of colours. There’s an amusing feature where you can see other people’s activity on the site as different-coloured cursors that move around magically. (Each person has their own colour.)

The big downside, of course, is that you are using Google, a corporation which searches all of your documents, and uses the results to fine-tune its advertising to you. The most easily accessible non-corporate alternative is probably Crabgrass, which is an activist project from Riseup in North America. Crabgrass has a basic wiki function. It is very clunky in comparison.

You could make your own wiki, if you are technical and that way inclined, but for all its corporate sins, we tend to use Google for collaborative editing. If you want to store a collection of documents, however, like the minutes of your organising group, a wiki is a really good idea, as we discovered during the organising of the Rebellious Media Conference (wiki provided by visionOntv).

ImageGoogle Docs: Windows, Mac, Linux
Usefulness *****
Ease of use *****
Radical-ness *
Quirkiness *
Right-on alternative: Crabgrass

File transfer and storage: Dropbox.
What do you do when you have to send someone a file that is bigger than 2Mb or so? It can be difficult if not impossible to email large files.

Dropbox is an online storage space. You install a small piece of software on a computer, and every file you put in the new Dropbox folder is saved automatically to a personal folder on the Dropbox website.

We use Dropbox mainly to transfer files between staff in different places. (We used to use Yousendit.com, but that is much more limited.) One clever feature is that Dropbox synchronises all your files on all your machines. So if you have a computer at work and a computer at home, and use a Dropbox app on your mobile phone, all of the files will be kept automatically up to date with your latest changes. It’s free and quite sophisticated. If two people try to change the same file at the same time it makes two copies so the two lots of changes are clearly distinguishable.

ImageFree storage: 2Gb.
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ****
Radical-ness *
Quirkiness *

To-do lists:
Remember The Milk
If your to-do list is online, you can never lose that bit of paper.

We use two different kinds of software for personal and collective to-do lists. Co-editor Milan Rai uses Remember The Milk for a personal to-do list. For a collective to-do list for all PN staff, we have a Google Docs page called “Cumulative PN Working Group Action Points”.

Remember The Milk was one of the first online task managers and it is still one of the best. You can make lists, put a date (and time) due on a task, and tag your tasks. There are four layers of priority you can set for each task, and some nifty power user “smart lists”.

If you pay $25 for a Pro one-year upgrade, you can get an app for your Android or Apple smartphone, and have mobile access to your to-do list (completing, postponing, editing or adding tasks). You can get reminders by email or text. (Some people think RTM works well with GTD, David Allen’s famous “Getting Things Done” productivity system. We wish we knew whether this was the case.) Mil uses Remember the Milk on his smartphone and says it makes him a bit less unproductive.

There are lots of Open Source to-do lists, but we don’t know anything about them. The most right-on alternative must be Crabgrass, mentioned above, which has a painfully rudimentary task list function.

For PN staff, we have a collective GoogleDocs to-do list which has all the accumulated action points from all our different meetings, organised by person. People make notes about what they’ve done, next to the relevant task, or write “Done” and a date, and the items get deleted after the next meeting. That’s the theory anyhow. It’s been useful in the past six months we’ve been using it, but maintaining the list is itself another job.

ImageRemember The Milk: Windows, Mac, Linux (because it’s web-based); Android, Blackberry, iPhone. Free -
$25pa for smartphone app.
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ****
Radical-ness *
Quirkiness *

Email lists: Riseup
Radical email groups

Pretty much every group needs an email list, either to send out announcements to its members, or for discussion.

You can get free email lists through corporations like Yahoo!, but these add adverts to your email and are not secure. If you can’t afford to buy an email list from a right-on provider like GreenNet, you could apply to Riseup, a North American radical technology collective. Like Peace News, Riseup are a donation-based group, relying on your generosity to survive and thrive. (They also offer email accounts.) Currently, the grassroots activist’s choice. Peace News Summer Camp has a Riseup email list.

ImageRiseup: free/donation.
Usefulness *****
Ease of use ***
Radical-ness *****
Quirkiness ***