Category: Web exclusive

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!

Why I’m throwing my mobile phone away

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Dr Emmett Brown, Back to the Future (1985)

I hardly ever use phones.  Like many people, I do most of my communication either face to face, or using the net.  That having been said, I find that I’m spending an enormous amount of money on telephones.

On average, I’m spending around £58 ($100) a month for something which I don’t think I really need.

Of that money, about 75% goes to Three, one of the least expensive mobile phone carriers in the UK — where I have one of the least expensive plans (Essential Internet 300 – just 300 minutes per month).  That plan includes a 24-month contract which ends very soon.  The rest is spent on a relatively inexpensive international calling service called “18185” and on SkypeOut credit which allows me to call regular phones using Skype.

So I recently called up Three (because you actually need to phone them to do this) to instruct them not to renew my contract.  And which provider will I be using?

None.  No one.  No provider.

I’m throwing my mobile phone away.

(Not really — I’ll probably recycle the damn thing.)

But wait a minute, what if I want to have a, you know, conversation with someone who’s not in the room?  What used to be called a “telephone call”?

I’ll be using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) for that — meaning Skype, but possibly alternatives as well, such as Viber.

I can already hear the objections.

Sure, you’re saying, but isn’t using Skype kind of clunky on a laptop or desktop?

It is, which is why I’ll be using an iPod Touch.

Well OK, that works, but what if I want to call you?

I’ve purchased a Skype online number — it’s a local number in London.  It costs me £3.35 a month.

What if you want to call someone who’s not on Skype?

On the rare occasions where that might be case, I’ll use SkypeOut.

That’s great when you have WiFi, but what about the times you’re out and about?

First of all, I nearly always have WiFi.  I have it at work and at home and in most cafes I might go to.

But on the off chance that I’m somewhere where I want to make or receive a phone call on a 3G or 4G network, I need a portable WiFi hotspot with me.  So I’ve purchased a Huawei E5332 Unlocked Mobile Wi-Fi Modem on eBay for about £35.00.  I’ll need a SIM card for that, so I’ll be taking the £5.00 a month data-only plan from GiffGaff, giving me 500 MB of data.

In other words, my monthly expense will be £8.35 (that’s the Skype Internet Number and the GiffGaff data-only SIM plan) — not £58.87.  I’ll be saving £50 a month.

There remains the issue of how to deal with SMS messages.

Here are my thoughts:

  • I’m encouraging people who need to instant message me regularly to sign up to Telegram Messenger, which works on a wide range of devices and is faster and more secure than WhatsApp (which doesn’t work on an iPod Touch or even an iPad).
  • If someone does send me an ordinary text message to my phone, BT reads it out to me automatically.
  • Finally, the Huawei device has a way to handle text messages which I’ll need to explore — an indicator lights up on the device and I can then read the message online.

So why do it?

First of all, I’ll save £600 ($1,000) a year.

I’ll have better quality phone calls — including free video calls when it’s Skype-to-Skype or using Apple’s FaceTime.

And the device I’m using has all the same apps and wonderful high-resolution Retina screen that the latest iPhone has — but weighs less and looks way cooler.

In fact I was stopped by someone on the Tube the other day who asked me if what I was using was an iPhone 6.  (For the non-techies among you, there is no iPhone 6 — not yet.)

It just doesn’t get cooler than that.

So I’m ditching the mobile phone after 16 years of using one.

Phones?  Where I’m going, you don’t need phones.



Facebook now owns WhatsApp – it’s time to look at alternatives


Update: Totally ahead of the curve on this one.  WhatsApp had an outage yesterday triggering a massive number of new users for Telegram Messenger.  They’re claiming to have 100 new users signing up every second. Here’s one news story about this.  And now, my original post:

If you’re concerned about your privacy online, and you should be, the announcement this week that Facebook has purchased WhatsApp for US$19,000,000,000 will be a cause for concern.

By coincidence, I was searching earlier this week for something like WhatsApp that would work on my iPod Touch.  WhatsApp, incredibly, will only work on phones and not all mobile devices.  It won’t work on an iPad, for example.

telegramI came across Telegram Messenger and have just started to use it.  It’s not just a WhatsApp replacement — it’s my SMS replacement too.  (For most, but not all, SMS messages.)

Telegram is the free brainchild of brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, the founders of VK, the largest social network in Russia.

Its unique selling point is that it offers end-to-end encryption.  Here’s what they write about it:

Secret chats are meant for people who really want secure messaging. All messages in secret chats use end-to-end encryption. This means only you and the recipient can read those messages — nobody can decipher or intercept them, including us here at Telegram. Messages cannot be forwarded from secret chats. You can also order your messages to self-destruct in a set amount of time after they have been read by the recipient. The message will then disappear from both your and your friend’s devices.  One last difference between secret and ordinary chats in Telegram is that secret chats are not stored in our cloud. This means you can only access messages in a secret chat on their device of origin.

To prove their point, Pavel and Nikolai have offered a huge prize to anyone who can crack their encryption — read what the BBC has to say about this.

I’ve signed up to use Telegram — which is available for Android and iOS (including Internet-connected iOS devices like the iPod Touch and iPad) — and look forward to trying it out.

My new best friend: todo.txt

As some of you will be aware, I’m an avid user of to-do lists.

Long before such lists were commonplace on the net, I used something we techies call “pen and paper” to keep my lists.

By the late 1990s, I had my first Palm Pilot and still think that the To Do list that came with the device was one of the best thought-out bits of software I’ve ever used.

Ever since then I’ve tried pretty much all the available options and have to say that I liked Toodledo best of all of them, and synced it to my various phones and tablets over the years.

I recently thought I’d give Wunderlist another try as it keeps getting amazing reviews from places like Lifehacker.

But Wunderlist has one fatal flaw.

The default display of tasks is not in the order in which you need to do them.  In other words, if I have 100 tasks, some of them due today, some due next month, the default should be to show the ones due today first, right?

But if I look at all tasks, Wunderlist shows me them grouped by category — so I may very well see non-urgent tasks appearing on top of the page, but urgent ones appearing far further down.

As I use my to-do list as a calendar, I need to be able to see rather quickly if I’m free on a certain date.  With Wunderlist, that’s pretty much impossible, especially if you have a bunch of categories.  (If you keep everything in a single category, it would work.)

So I decided this week to try, once again, an old favorite — todo.txt.

Originally developed by Gina Trapani, who founded Lifehacker, todo.txt is basically a stripped-down, open source system for power users of to do lists.

It’s feature-poor, which is perfect, because you can add the features you want.

And it’s based a simple text file (todo.txt) with a human-readable, easy-to-understand syntax, which you ideally host on Dropbox.

Here’s what a typical task would look like in todo.txt:

Write article about todo.txt

That’s right — that’s all you’d need.  Make a list of those, and you’ve got a working database for todo.txt.

But I’m going to improve it by adding a category, in the case, “Writing”.

Write article about todo.txt +Writing

That’s built-in to the “official” spec for todo.txt.  But it’s also very easy to hack.

For example, the default version that appears on my Android devices doesn’t include a field for the due date (though there is a way to due this using the command line interface).

This would normally be a deal-breaker.

But I can insert a date as the first bit of text in the title, and voila, it sorts by date when you sort alphabetically, which I can leave as the default (unlike Wunderlist).

Here’s how the line would now look:

2013.11.26 Write article about todo.txt +Writing

And within a single date, I’d like to highlight essential tasks without using the existing priority field, which would look like this:

(A) 2013.11.26 Write article about todo.txt +Writing

This is because I don’t want to choose between sorting by priority and sorting by date.

So instead, I put an asterisk just after the date.  That way, the automatic alphabetic sort by title works perfectly.  In other words, this would be one line for a top priority task for me, due today:

2013.11.26 * Write article about todo.txt +Writing

The one thing that would make todo.txt perfect would be if the Android version would include recurring tasks and the due date, but maybe that will happen in the future.

So, sorry Toodledo — you’re not getting a renewal of my $14.99 “Silver” subscription.

And Wunderlist — well you can forget about getting those €45.00 you ask to become a “pro”.

I’m sticking with Gina’s solution because, while not perfect, it’s flexible and it’s free.


Workers rights are human rights – take a stand now!

Huber Ballesteros is a Colombian trade union leader jailed for leading strikes and protests – show your support by sending a message today to the Colombian government demanding his release – click here.

The Korean Teachers Union faces deregistration by the South Korean government because it refuses to accede to government demands that it bar from membership teachers who’ve been sacked (often for union activism) – protest today by sending a message to the South Korean government – click here.

The United Nations is supposed to be a beacon of human rights, but Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he no longer recognizes the UN’s own staff unions and won’t negotiate with them – tell him what you think – click here.

Victor Crespo is a port worker trade union leader in Honduras whose life was threatened by gun-wielding thugs and has been forcibly exiled from his country – demand justice from the Honduran government – click here.

The coup in Egypt: First impressions

This is the text of a presentation made to a meeting of the Alliance for Workers Liberty in London on 11 July 2013.

Let’s start with what we probably agree on:

1. support for early, free and fair elections
2. swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
3. no return of Morsi to power
4. any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Now we get to the tricky bit.

Two years ago, back in May 2011, Kamal Abbas of the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) spoke here in London at a packed event which the AWL organized.

His organization, which laid so much of the groundwork for the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and that formed the core of the new independent unions in Egypt, has issued a series of statements before and after the coup.

But before telling you what they say, we need to review what the trade union movement has been saying, and in this case, the TUC here has been echoing the views expressed by the International Trade Union Confederation based in Brussels.

And their views, I might add, are indistinguishable from the views of the British and other European governments, or those of the USA.

The consensus expressed by the ITUC, TUC, David Cameron, Barak Obama, etc can be summed up in this way:

1. Morsi, though elected, was a terrible ruler and was becoming increasingly authoritarian. This is no surprise because we knew all along that the Muslim Brotherhood was not committed to democracy and as the AWL has correctly noted, is a clerical fascist movement.

2. The protesters in Tahrir Square were basically right, and were continuing in the spirit of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

3. Nevertheless, the army decision to topple Morsi was wrong, and is unacceptable.

4. But having said that, we are not demanding Morsi’s reinstatement and instead are moving on, facing the future, and so on. As the ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow put it, “Egypt now has a second chance to build a democracy that respects the rights and interests of all women and men, and guarantees social justice.”

This position, which is very widely held, is full of contradictions.

If you genuinely believe that the Muslim Brotherhood government of Morsi was legitimately elected and should be replaced only by opponents chosen by the people in free and fair elections, then you must call for Morsi’s reinstatement. But that is not what the labour movement or Western governments are calling for.

Which brings me to the extraordinary gap between what labour movements in the West are saying and what our comrades in Egypt are saying.

Let me start with a quote from an Egyptian trade unionist that appeared on the website of the MENA Solidarity Network.

“The army intervention,” he said, “stopped terrorist groups, who were prepared to use weapons against us and against our revolution from shedding citizens’ blood.”

The view that Morsi’s government was basically authoritarian and would soon be crushing the demonstrations in Tahrir square was widely held.

I have no doubt that our comrades in Egypt had studied what happened in Turkey in the last few weeks and watched a far more democratic Islamist government behave ruthlessly with brutal violence against peaceful protesters in Taksim Square and elsewhere.

They fully expected either the police or the Muslim Brotherhood itself to come down hard on the protests, and saw the army as coming to their rescue, and preventing further violence.

That violence was not hypothetical – it would have been an intensification of the violence already used by the Brotherhood against workers.

As the ITUC itself stated on the eve of the coup, “Actions by independent unions to support pay rises for workers on poverty wages have been routinely met with violence and dismissal of union supporters in recent months, women are being subjected to unprecedented levels of violence, and media are facing suppression.”

As the CTUWS put it in a statement issued before the coup, “The past year witnessed widespread human rights crimes, on a scale that rivaled [those] under the Mubarak regime. The brutal suppression of political and social protest movements did not cease; indeed, the security forces are no longer the only party to use of excessive force against demonstrators, as MB supporters have also been given free rein to use violence to punish and intimidate their opponents”.

It was this atmosphere of fear, of the clerical fascist Muslim Brotherhood growing increasingly violent, that led to the welcoming of the coup by our comrades.

And how did they welcome it? With critical support? With the kind of neither-the-brotherhood-nor-the-military third camp slogans?

Not at all – they embraced it with all their souls.

Here is how the statement issued by the CTUWS on the morning after the coup begins:

“For the second time in less than two and a half years the Egyptian people prove the wonderful and dazzling ability to create miracles, millions … rise up in all the streets and the squares of freedom responsive to the rejuvenated rebellious appeal, determined to bring down the fascist regime that had been able to, in the absence of everyone and under the conditions of a complex political grab of this great revolution .. The great Egyptian people rose up to restore to this nation its identity of moderation .. Tolerance .. Unity and not divisiveness, and to restore Egypt as a homeland for all, without exclusion, and a nation of freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

And it’s not just the CTUWS that’s expressed unqualified support for the coup.

The National Salvation Front, a broad coalition, had this to say on the morning after:

“We would like to confirm that what Egypt is witnessing now is not a military coup by any standards. It was a necessary decision that the Armed Forces’ leadership took to protect democracy, maintain the country’s unity and integrity, restore stability and get back on track towards achieving the goals of the January 25 Revolution.”

If you just watch the BBC, you’d think that the National Salvation Front is just Mohamed El Baradei, who was a former regime loyalist who only slowly woke up to the evils of the Mubarak dictatorship.

But if look into who actually makes up the Front, it also includes the venerable Communist Party of Egypt and several socialist parties – including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, affiliated to the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists.

So we have a situation where everyone outside of Egypt seems wary, at the least, of military rule; but inside Egypt, our comrades and basically everyone who’s not an Islamist, seems pretty happy that the generals stepped in.

Can socialists ever imagine a scenario in which they would support a military coup?

In the AWL’s recent statement, you cited the example of the May 1926 coup in Poland, which is probably not the best-known example.

In more recent times, many socialists – though not the AWL – cheered on the left-populist putschist Hugo Chavez, who did eventually come to power in a free election, but only after trying his hand at a classic military coup d’etat.

Probably the most interesting historical example is offered by the Bolsheviks, though of course this may not as familiar to you as the May 1926 Polish coup.

In October 1917, the Petrograd garrison mutinied, helping to bring to power a government headed by the Bolsheviks and their partners, the Left Social Revolutionaries.

Had the garrison remained loyal to the Kerensky government, Lenin and Trotsky would be footnotes to history. But they were not loyal and in fact were actively disloyal to their government – just as the Egyptian military was last week.

The signal for the storming of the Winter Palace in that revolution (or coup) was the firing of the guns of the cruiser Aurora, whose crew had turned on the Provisional Government and thrown in their lot with Lenin.

The parallels with what happened in Egypt don’t stop there.

To those who complain that Morsi, however bad, was a democratically elected leader and could only be removed in a free election, may I remind comrades of the arguments used by the Bolsheviks to justify their decision to close down the democratically-elected Constituent Assembly early in 1918.

The Bolsheviks would have been the very last to make a fetish of free elections and parliamentary government. They didn’t hesitate to use the military to bring down what was a far more representative government – Kerensky’s coalition – than the one they replaced it with.

And it was armed soldiers and sailors who dispersed the Constituent Assembly by force.

In other words, you as people who politically identify with Lenin and Trotsky, should be the very last to stand on ceremony in this case.

And we all, no matter what we think of the October revolution (or coup), have to take into consideration what our comrades in Egypt have been saying for the past week.

We don’t have to agree with them, but we have to hear their reasoning and try to understand them.

That having been said, I return to what I believe we can agree on:

  • support for early, free and fair elections
  • swift withdrawal of the military to their barracks
  • no return of Morsi to power
  • any government, transitional or otherwise, must respect human rights

Thank you.


GooglelogoI wonder if that’s a word.  It should be.

I’ve been de-Googling my life today.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Google was cool.

Back in the 1990s, I remember reading about it, and checking it out and discovering a blisteringly-fast search engine without all the garbage you found on sites like Yahoo.

At the time, Google was so hungry to promote itself that if you partnered with them, they’d pay you for each time someone searched using it.

I made a few bucks that way — not much — but it’s hard to believe today that Google used to pay people to use it.

Google even sent me a t-shirt by post to thank me for mentioning them in an article.  (I wish I’d kept it.)

This was ages ago.

Today, Google is a monster.  Nearly everyone uses at least one of its products — maybe it’s your Android phone (Google owns the operating system), or Gmail, or the Chrome browser, or Google Analytics for your website.

We share so much information with Google these days that even if the company did pay its taxes, I’d still be worried about its monopoly of information, especially personal information.

Back in December, I decided to quit Gmail for these reasons and others.

Today, I’ve taken it a step further by dropping other Google products:

  • I no longer use Chrome, and have gone back to the excellent, free, open source and non-profit Firefox.
  • I don’t use Google for search anymore — I’m now using DuckDuckGo, an incredibly stupid name for what seems to be a perfectly good alternative to Google search.
  • I’m replacing Google analytics with Clicky.

And for those who’ve forgotten, my web-based email client these days is Fastmail.

The next big step might be to drop Android altogether — I’ll have to see about that …

I’m not encouraging anyone else to do what I’ve done. I just wanted to see if one could live without Google, and I think one can.

Goodbye GoodReads, Hello LibraryThing

I like to keep a record of the books I’ve read, and like millions of others, have found online communities to be a good way of doing this.

In recent years, I’ve used two of these – GoodReads and LibraryThing.

I recently began using GoodReads more because it, unlike LibraryThing, had an app for my phone and tablet.

But a couple of weeks ago, Amazon bought GoodReads — a good business move on their part.

Now they can sell even more books to people, and to people who we know enjoy reading.

I don’t boycott Amazon, despite all the terrible things they do, but if I have a choice, I take it.

I just closed down my GoodReads account and have moved everything over to LibraryThing.

Unicode, Drupal, PHP, MySQL: A love story (not)

I have been trying to do something fairly simple: I wanted to write a web page that could render well on a small screen (like a mobile phone) and which would display content from the IUF website.  How hard could this be?

Well, it shouldn’t have been hard.

The content on the IUF site, which is handled by a content management system called Drupal, is stored in a MySQL database.  The characters are encoded as Unicode (UTF-8) — because that’s what you need to do when you have multilingual content on your site, and the IUF site works in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and many other non-Latin languages.

So it should have been fairly simple to write a few lines of code in the widely-used PHP programming language to read news headlines from the IUF’s database and show them on screen.

Except that it was showing gibberish every time there was an accented character.

I posted a message calling for help on the Drupal forums.  (Not a big response there.)  I wrote to three very smart friends who understand these things and they all had good ideas, and pointed me in different directions, but to no avail.  Nothing was working.  One suggested that I give up.  I nearly did give up.

And then I decided to search again, and found this page where a programmer named “HoboTraveler” (I’m guessing that’s not his real name) encountered a similar problem on January 21st, 2008, more than five years ago.  He writes asking for help, gets loads of tips, tries a million things, nearly gives up, and then, dozens of comments later, he solves the problem.

He writes:

I think I got it to work with multiple databases!

I’ve inserted the line:

mysql_query(‘SET NAMES utf8′);

just after the mysql_connect() and it seems to work.

So I thought, what the hell, I’ll try that.  I tried everything else.  And “HoboTraveler”, whoever you are, you made my day.

Lesson of the story: sometimes life is hard.  And thank God for Google.