Category: Web exclusive

Organizing the unorganized

No one has any time.  We all have too much to do.

This is true for businessmen; it’s true for students; it’s true for activists like myself.

Is your email inbox overflowing?  Do you have more things to do than hours in the day to do them?

If so, read on.

Personal productivity

An entire industry has grown up in recent years around the idea of personal productivity and people who follow these sorts of things tend to identify with this or that guru, and this or that system.

I first came across this stuff more than a decade ago when I read Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I thought it had some interesting ideas, but Covey’s underlying religious faith and the faddishness of some of it put me off.  I asked a respected trade unionist in the U.S. what he thought of Covey, who he’d read, and he replied to me, “Stephen Covey is a sage.”

Well then, if I was allowed to read Covey, I could read the others.  The floodgates had opened.

David Allen’s book Getting Things Done was a revelation.  His system — known to adherents as “GTD” — has helped me to understand how we work and how we can work more effectively.

I’ve read many more writers than Covey and Allen, but often I remember only the titles of the books and perhaps one productivity tip.

For example, Eat that Frog made the great point that if you have one task to do which you really don’t want to do, and have been putting off doing, do that first.

I remember also the title — and little else — from a book called Never check email in the morning.  I didn’t agree with the title (I do check my emails first thing in the morning) but  remember little else.

What I’ve learned about personal productivity I’ve mostly learned from reading websites like Lifehacker and various blogs, and of course from trial and error.  Lots of trials, lots of errors.

The traditional to-do list

toodledoFor a very long time, I stuck to the most traditional kind of to-do list, and used Toodledo both on the web and on my smartphone.  It worked well, better than challengers like Todo.txt, Wunderlist or Any.do, though I understand the appeal of those.  (And have written about todo.txt in a blog.)

My main problem with Toodledo  and the others is that they are boring, and present a linear list of hundreds of tasks that can be downright depressing to look at.

And as software written by others, they never exactly meet my needs, nor would they meet yours.  It’s a compromise to use them.

Let me give one example: Toodledo offers you five different priorities for any task you add — they range from 0 to 3 (3 is the most important) and even include a negative one (-1), though I have no idea what that means.

But what if you want more than 5 priorities?  What if you want to create your own order of the 10 or more tasks you have facing you this morning?

And Toodledo, like any good to-do list, includes categorization.  So you can tag a task as being, for example, related to a particular project or client.  But here’s the rub: you can only select one tag.  What if a task actually fits in more than one category?

Toodledo is a task list.  It’s not a calendar, though I use it as one because I don’t see the point of keeping separate to-do lists and calendar.

And it’s not great for storing notes (though it has a rudimentary note system) — so I use the fantastic Evernote, as do millions of other people, to store my notes.

Until a short while ago, that was how I worked — with the limited capacity of Toodledo, no calendar to speak of, and Evernote for storing my notes.

The solution: Trello

trellogo-sidebarMeanwhile, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to Trello, an interesting and increasingly popular tool that works on my computer and of course on my phone.

I use Trello as do many others as a personal kanban — a bit of geek-speak that describes a whiteboard with some vertical lines drawn on it, with sticky notes pasted in various places.

Trello has begun to replace Toodledo and Evernote, as I migrate my tasks and notes to it.

In addition to handling my task list and notes, it automatically generates a calendar, a real one, that allows me to quickly answer the question of  “when are you free?”.

So, how does it all work?

First, visit trello.com and set up an account.  Trello is free of charge.

Your account consists of boards (my key ones are called Tasks and Notes), and each board contains lists.  Lists contain cards.  Cards are the basic building blocks of Trello, or any personal kanban system.

Got that?  Boards, then lists within boards, then cards.  Trello allows you to create as many boards, lists and cards as you want.

A card is not just short text, as you’d find in a traditional to-do list like Toodledo.  A card offers considerably more, including attachments, and setting a due date and time, which is tightly integrated into the calendar.

You can tag a card, which color-codes it, and you can choose more than one tag.   You can filter the cards so you’ll see only the ones for a specific tag (or multiple tags).

And you prioritize by dragging cards up and down the screen, left and right, rather than the arbitrary priorities you find in most systems.

There are certain things missing — recurring tasks, for one — but with the ease of dragging cards around the screen, you don’t really need this.

Everyone has a different way of implementing Trello and the classic approach is three lists (those vertical columns) labelled To Do, Doing, and Done, or something similar.  (Geeks like to call the middle column WIP — works in progress.)  I work differently.

My personal kanban

kanbanIn my Tasks board, I have about a dozen lists that scroll across from left to right.

The first is called “Next actions” and that’s a phrase from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I limit it to 4 or 5 tasks that I need to work on right now.

The next column is for today, and I label these Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and so on.  There are columns for each day of the week.

When I look at my screen (on a computer) I can see 5 or more of these, and get a real sense of what lies ahead.  Instead of one long scrolling list as you’d have with Toodledo, you have five or more in front of you, side by side.

After the seventh day, I have one called “Inbox” (again, a nod to David Allen) where I put stuff that has no other place — yet.

To the right of that is a list of tasks with specific dates on them; I call that column “Later” and include the date as the first few characters (e.g., 31/12).  When the time comes, I drag these over to the seven daily lists.

So instead of seeing a single column on my screen showing 200 tasks (if I scroll), I now see five columns showing about seven tasks each.

More manageable, easier to work with, easier to make changes.

Trello and personal kanban are not for everyone.  Some people keep their to-do lists in their heads; some write them down on paper.

But if you’re using computers and smartphones to track your tasks, I recommend this solution.

P.S. Did I mention that Trello works particularly well for groups?  Probably not …

Shock victory for the Left as Tories ousted

Tomorrow is election day here in Britain, and that headline is unlikely to grace the front page of any of our newspapers on the morning after.

But it’s a real headline and it describes what happened yesterday in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), which is a sister party to the British Labour Party and a member party of the Socialist International, just won a historic victory.  The word “historic” is tossed around quite a bit lately, but let me explain by anecdote.

The first and only time I ever visited Alberta was in early 1977.  I arrived in Edmonton planning to spend a couple of days there.  As one does, I went to visit the local NDP, which was a small, sleepy office with one or two people hanging around.

The Provincial Secretary, Ray Martin, had time on his hands and though my visit was unannounced, he was happy to talk me through Alberta politics.  He explained that as the party would be holding its provincial convention in a couple of weeks, I should stick around.  And while in Edmonton, I should check the opening of the provincial parliament, known as the Legislative Assembly.  So I did.

I attended the colourful opening of parliament, and heard the speeches by the conservative government, which were followed by a speech by the lone dissenter, the only NDP member of Alberta’s parliament, Grant Notley.   I met Notley later at the provincial NDP convention, where I delivered greetings from our little group south of the border, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee.  And then I left.

Notley tragically died in a plane crash seven years later.  The party he left behind was stronger, and picked up 16 seats (up from just two) in the election that year.  The leader was Ray Martin, who I’d chatted with just a few years earlier.  It was to be the NDP’s high point, never matched again in what has long been considered Canada’s most right-wing province.

Now fast forward to May 2015.

Yesterday, Notley’s daughter Rachel, who would have been 13 when I visited Edmonton, led the NDP to a landslide victory in the provincial elections.  The party won 55 seats, and the ruling Tories, just 11, in the 87 seat legislature.  

In Canada’s most right-wing province, the democratic socialists are now in power.

So, yes, pigs fly, miracles happen — and one should never, ever give up.

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Kobane is this generation’s Stalingrad

Stalingrad, 1943.

By the summer of 1942, the outcome of the second world war was easy to predict.  The German U-boat operations in the North Atlantic were proving increasingly successful in sinking Allied ships.  In North Africa, Rommel’s forces had taken Tobruk.  And one year into Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht had wrested control of most of the western part of the country.  The forward march of Nazism seemed unstoppable.

For the last several months, news reports about the onward march of the fascists of “Islamic state” have echoed that same sense of inevitability.  Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, fell in June.   Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, fell the next day.  In August, the Yazidi stronghold Sinjar fell.  Every day brought new reports of victories for the Islamists.  ISIS seemed unstoppable.

Until Kobane.

Like Stalingrad, Kobane has become something of a ghost town, battered by shelling and bombing, most of its civilian population having fled.  What remains behind are the determined fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — many of them women.  And those fighters have now fought the fascists to a standstill.

Before Stalingrad, the victory of Hitler seemed highly likely, if not inevitable.  After Stalingrad, the defeat of the Nazis became certain.  From the time the Wehrmacht’s 6th army finally surrendered in February 1943 until the final collapse of the Third Reich in May 1945, the German army never again won a decisive victory.   From then on, the war consisted of a long and bloody retreat back to Berlin.

It is too early to say if this will be the case with Kobane.

Under enormous international pressure, the Erdogan regime in Turkey has finally agreed to allow Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq to join their fellow Kurds in defending Kobane.  As I write these words, they are on their way.

At the same time, units of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA) have arrived in Kobane to join the YPG fighters.

And these forces — the YPG, the FSA and the Peshmerga — are being backed by the immense air power of the United States and its allies.  The US is dropping not only bombs, but supplies that have been stiffening resistance in Kobane.

According to one report, “News reached the world on Monday morning that an airdrop by Coalition forces of 27 bundles of arms, ammunition and medical aid had been delivered successfully to the YPG in Kobane. Finally, the long awaited, much-needed arms had been delivered to the YPG guerrillas, much to the dismay of Turkey. All morning, people in the village received the news with satisfaction, proclaiming ‘Long live Obama.’

In doing so, these airdrops repeat the support given by the US to the Soviets during the Second World War.  At that time, there were no US “boots on the ground” in Russia, but there were plenty of supplies coming through.  In fact, it has been argued that part of the reason why Hitler needed to take Stalingrad was to cut off the flow of US supplies and weapons going up the Volga.

A defeat for the Islamists in Kobane doesn’t necessarily deal the fascists a death blow.  It’s more likely that the struggle will see ups and downs, with some victories for the Kurds and their allies, and some for “Islamic state”.

But for the first time in a long time, the fascists are feeling the sting of a strong and motivated resistance.  In Kobane today, the spirit of Stalingrad lives.

 

38 Degrees: This is NOT democracy

I have just received an email message from 38 Degrees, an online campaigning organization in the UK that claims to have three million members of which, apparently, I am one.  The subject line is “Islamic State” and the message asks me to “vote” on what I think 38 Degrees should do.  I was given this link:

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/air-strikes-poll-2#petition

This is not democracy — it is just an online poll.  Where do I, or anyone else, have the chance to engage with other members and try to persuade them of my view?  Where I can I hear their views?   Continue reading

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Hamas has been defeated – now Israel must seize the opportunity

That headline will seem premature to post people, but any strictly military analysis of what’s happened in the last month confirms Hamas’ defeat.

This was supposed to be a war that would see Tel Aviv go up in flames, and Israeli cities were to be flattened by thousands of Hamas rockets. That didn’t happen. Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system worked exceptionally well.

And though Hamas started the war with its missile attacks, it soon lost the initiative to Israel, which attacked Gaza in force. The result was the destruction of hundreds of missiles, the capture of large numbers of Hamas fighters, and the killing of hundreds more.

Hamas’ “secret weapon” — the vast network of attack tunnels to allow its fighters to enter Israel — has been exposed and largely destroyed.

If this had been any other war, at any other time, the results would be clear to all. Israel’s military has won; Hamas has lost.

But this is war in the age of Twitter — and politics has become the extension of war by other means.

While Israeli forces have routed their Hamas opponents on the ground, in the battlefield of global public opinion, Hamas has the upper hand.

This has happened largely because of Israel’s failure to minimize the number of civilians killed on the Palestinian side.

Israel has made huge efforts to do this, including dropping leaflets from the sky, sending text messages to Palestinian families, and even the practice of hitting buildings that are about to the struck with dud warheads, as a warning. No doubt this has reduced the number of civilian deaths. But it has not been good enough, and that’s not me saying that, it’s President Obama.  And he is right.

There can be no more civilian deaths on either side; this has to stop now.

I believe that a ceasefire will happen, sooner or later, even if all the ceasefires so far have been failures. When that ceasefire does come, its terms will confirm what I have already said.

The latest ceasefire (already broken) saw Hamas back down from all its preconditions, agreeing to quiet in exchange for quiet. It accepted that Israeli forces could remain in place, inside Gaza, during the ceasefire.  It agreed that they could continue to destroy tunnels, if those tunnels were behind Israeli lines.

That was a massive capitulation by Hamas, and evidence of its military weakness.

The question now is, what next? What happens after a ceasefire?

This is where the Israeli leadership needs to show courage, and to take some risks. Because in the immediate aftermath of the eventual ceasefire we’re going to get, we have an historic opportunity to break the deadlock.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right are not going to like this, but this will be the perfect moment for Israel to make some big changes to its policies.

  • Instead of refusing to talk to the Hamas-PLO unity government, Israel should join the USA in welcoming its formation, and welcoming it to peace talks.  Israel should apply an updated version of the old Shemtov-Yariv formula which allowed negotiations with any Palestinians who recognized Israel and repudiated terror.
  • Israel should encourage the Palestinian Authority (PA), possibly with Egyptian help, to immediately take control of security in Gaza and to bring a permanent halt to missile attacks on the Jewish state.
  • Israel and Egypt should end the blockade of Gaza, and together with the PA ensure that the flow of weapons from Iran and elsewhere to Gaza ceases immediately. The same measures that are in place today in the West Bank (where no one speaks of a blockade) should be in place in Gaza as well.
  • Israel should welcome the PA’s application to become full members of the United Nations, and should offer to be the first state in the world to welcome a full Palestinian ambassador to present his credentials to the Israeli President in Jerusalem.
  • Israel should announce that it embraces the principles of the Geneva Accord and welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative, is prepared to give up land for peace, and to close down the settlements.

I admit that it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu and his right-wing allies embracing any of these points. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Netanyahu’s party represents a small fraction of Israeli voters (only 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset are held by the Likud). Alternative ruling coalitions are possible, with or without new elections.

It is not guaranteed that Netanyahu will continue to benefit from high levels of public support. Just as there are signs in Gaza of ordinary people growing tired of Hamas, most Israelis want peace and quiet too.

Whoever leads Israel needs to show the same courage that its soldiers have always shown, and to take risks for peace. Because the alternative — endless war — cannot be allowed to happen.

How to stop Hamas’s terror-blitz on Israel

The Islamist terror group Hamas cannot conquer Israel; in fact, it can’t even run the Gaza Strip.  Unable to provide anything useful for the Palestinians, it engages in endless and pointless confrontations with Israel.

The local population, cowed by terror, is unable to get rid of these gangsters that rule them.

Israel, though not under existential threat, faces up to 10,000 rockets, hundreds of which have already been fired at it.

Many in Israel and elsewhere have expressed a kind of despair, a “what can you do” attitude.  This was reflected in most media, which point to the seemingly endless nature of the conflict, and the lack of leverage now that the USA seems disengaged, and post-Morsi Egypt without any leverage on the Islamists.

Even a temporary cease-fire, let alone a peace agreement, seems impossible.

But I think this is not entirely the case, and I want to make a few comments on a number of ways out — ways to put an end to Hamas’s rocket terrorism.

1. The IDF.  The common wisdom says that there is no military solution to terrorism.  But this is untrue.  Throughout history, terrorist movements have been crushed by superior military force many times.  Israel has learned from experience that all steps forward in a peace process are conditional upon its own military strength.  Sadat came to Jerusalem and signed the Camp David accord only after the Israeli military inflicted crushing defeats on the Egyptian army in 1967 and again in 1973.  Arafat and the PLO finally embraced a two-state solution and recognized Israel in 1988, in a prelude to Oslo, only after the first Palestinian intifada fizzled out.  Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of military force in ending conflict; it’s an important ingredient in persuading one side (or both) to lay down arms and start talking.

2. The USA.  While Secretary of State John Kerry may have left the Middle East without having made any progress on restarting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, it’s not true that the Obama administration doesn’t care.  They do care, as the region seems to be spiralling out of control, and they understand that the US has a strategic interest not only in a strong Israel, but in Hamas’s defeat.  And while the USA may have little or no leverage with the Islamists, it has lots of leverage in the region — including Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.  

3. The Palestinian Authority.  This is the key.   Mahmoud Abbas has called on Israel to show restraint.  What he needs to do is call on Hamas to show restraint.  Abbas needs to make it absolutely clear to Hamas that if it wants to be part of the unity government, the condition for that is stopping the rocket terror.   (One can argue that Abbas has essentially said this in the past, declaring the newly-formed unity government will respect the Oslo accords and is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel based on a two-state solution.)  Abbas is not making this clear, and those who have influence on him (and this includes Israel and the USA) must press him to press his Hamas partners.

4. Iran.  The mullahs in Tehran have in recent weeks become the darlings of the West.  No longer seen as a nuclear-armed Third Reich aiming to obliterate Israel, the Iranians are now seen as partners in nuclear disarmament and, more important, in stabilizing Iraq in face of the Sunni Islamist threat.  In Iraq, Iran, the USA, Israel, and the Kurds are all on the same side in battling the terrorist group now known as Islamic State.  The USA and others can use this de facto alliance, and Iran’s desire to appear to be committed to de-escalation in the region, to get Tehran to place a phone call to Gaza and tell their Hamas clients to back down.

5. The Palestinian people.  The people of Gaza were terrorized into accepting Hamas rule, and have been silent even as their Hamas rulers have brought down utter destruction upon them.  From time to time, when things are relatively quiet, there are signs of unrest, such as the occasional strike by workers.  We know from history that sometimes, wars end when a people decides to get rid of the rulers who caused the wars, as happened across Europe in 1918.  I’m not expecting a Gazan uprising any time soon, but the conditions for a “Palestinian Spring” exist in widespread disillusionment with the corrupt warlords of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

6. World public opinion.  Being outside the region, one often feels powerless to do anything.  But actually, the world does have leverage — if not directly on the gangsters running the Islamist groups in Gaza, at least on the Palestinian Authority (which is completely dependent on international support and goodwill) and on Iran, which arms and pays for the terrorist gangs in Gaza.  The USA, and to an even larger degree, the countries of the European Union, have real leverage here.  They can pressure Abbas and the Iranians to tell Hamas to back down, and should do so.

Stopping Hamas’s rocket blitz against Israel will not be easy.

But a combination of precision military strikes and diplomatic pressure targetting the Palestinian Authority and Iran will work.

In the long run, the Palestinian people themselves will need to stand up and say to the criminal gang that calls itself Hamas — enough is enough.

That day may be a long way off, but it will happen, and when the Palestinians have had enough, there will be peace. 

Russia, Ukraine and the International Left

“The policy of Russia is changeless … Its methods, its tactics, its maneuvers may change, but the polar star of its policy — world domination — is a fixed star.”

— Karl Marx, 1867

That extraordinary passage by Marx appears in a little-known collection of his writings (as well as those of Friedrich Engels) which was published in 1952 under the title “The Russian Menace to Europe”.

That book aimed to show the fundamental continuity of Russian foreign policy from the tsars through Stalin.

Its editors, Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F. Hoselitz, argued that “the analysis made by Marx and Engels of the external as well as internal polices and socio-political trends of Czarist Russia are fully applicable to similar aspects of Stalinist Russia.  The main provisional and final objectives of Russian foreign policy have not been altered …”

It was a bold argument, and one not widely appreciated by the Left during the Cold War.  Many leftists believed Russia played a progressive role in international affairs right up until the end.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was widely hoped that the predatory foreign policy of the tsars and their Stalinist successors had finally come to an end.

And yet within a few short years, those hopes were to be dashed — first by the barbaric war against Chechnya, and later by Russian aggression directed against Georgia.

The seizure of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were dress rehearsals for the seizure this week of Crimea.

Though few would accept that the Putin regime still dreams of world domination, there can no longer be any question of its dreams regarding the countries of the former USSR — the so-called “near abroad”.

What should be the response of the international Left to the latest Russian aggression, this time targetting democratic Ukraine?

In my view, the slogan “Hands Off Ukraine!” should be embraced by all socialists and democrats but this has not been the case.

In the UK, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper, the Morning Star — which is funded by Britain’s largest union — has enthusiastically supported Russian aggression yet again.

The “Stop the War Coalition” which spearheaded opposition to British involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars has called on Nato and the USA to back down.  Here’s an example of their thinking:

“Vladimir Putin’s troop movements in Crimea, which are supported by most Russians, are of questionable legality under the terms of the peace and friendship treaty that Russia signed with Ukraine in 1997. But their illegality is considerably less clear-cut than that of the US-led invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, where the UN security council only authorised the intervention several weeks after it had happened.”

In other words, Putin may be bad — but Obama is worse.

Putin’s propaganda message has spread far and wide, and is being embraced by people who should know better.

I don’t only mean publicity-hungry and unprincipled fools like George Galloway or Thom Hartmann, who have sold out to get a show on Putin’s “Russia Today” television channel.

There are plenty of people out there who have no sympathy for Putin, but who are buying into the official Russian propaganda line.

The allegation that Nazi bandits have taken control of Kyiv is patently absurd.  Even the Jewish leadership in Ukraine has gone out of its way to reassure people that there have been very few anti-Semitic incidents.

Of course there are political forces in Ukraine that are vile, such as Svoboda.

The task of the international Left surely is to oppose them, to support the democratic and progressive elements in Ukraine, first and foremost the independent trade union movement.

Those unions were in the Maidan square from the beginning with their flags and banners and played a key role in the revolution which toppled the rotten and corrupt Yanukovich regime.

If the Ukrainian far-Right is to be defeated, it will be defeated by Ukrainians — not by Russian troops.

Democrats in Russia understand all this, and have protested demanding that their country stop its aggression against Ukraine.

Hundreds have been arrested.

The international Left should be focused on supporting those people, our comrades, in Russia and elsewhere who are challenging Putin.

We should not become apologists for Putin and his cronies, as some on the Left have become.

Our message should be loud and clear:

Hands off Ukraine!

No to Russian aggression!

Solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution!