Category: Web exclusive

If you care about your privacy and use Gmail, read this

gmailI recently read Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, which describes a world in which a Facebook-Google-like company takes over people’s lives and brings about a complete end to privacy. Some would describe the book as being visionary, or a warning. I think it actually didn’t go far enough.

Increasingly, we live in a world without privacy.

Millions of us wear devices that track our every step (I use FitBit for that) and we record every morsel of food we eat (my food diary of choice these days is MyNetDiary). We use web browsers or even computers (such as Chromebooks) that track our every step on the net, every term we have ever searched for, every byte we have ever downloaded.

Soon, we’ll have Google Glasses and driverless cars and countless other bits of hardware and software that turn our lives into an open book. And that’s a book which is open not to the security services of governments which we, in the end, elect, but to the data mining departments at faceless, privately-owned giant corporations which are accountable to no one.

One could withdraw from all this, close down accounts on Facebook and Twitter, get rid of that FitBit, and ditch the mobile phone which can pinpoint exactly where we are at any moment. Or one could take some simple steps that would radically improve one’s privacy without totally disconnecting from everything.

An easy one is Gmail.

I’ve ditched it and you can too.

When Gmail came on the scene, it was an exceptionally good web-based email client, and those of us who were using Hotmail (later purchased by Microsoft) or Yahoo Mail, eventually moved over to Google’s service. There was, however, one tiny little problem with Gmail.

It exists for just one reason: to help Google make money. Google is not in business to make the world a better place (OK, they say they are, but they’re lying). They are in business to make a profit. Gmail is a very important part of their business model.

They give it away for free (mostly), and crushed the competition by giving away more gigabytes of storage than anyone else.

Millions of us signed up to use it. And we discovered, if we were paying attention, how Google benefited from this: they data mine our emails. We turn over the content of our address books and our emails, including attachments, to Google, and in exchange they mine the data to find ways to sell us things.

If Google knows that you are discussing having a holiday in Spain with your friends and family, it will helpfully show you advertisements promoting various Spanish-related holiday deals — on the same screen as you see your emails.

Google will say in its defense that no one at Google reads your emails. That’s also a lie. While there are no slave-labouring children chained to their desks in Burma while they read your emails, there are massive server farms with countless thousands of powerful computers — and they are reading your emails.

That’s how Google makes it money from Gmail — by selling your most private information to anyone willing to pay for it, in order to sell you a product or service.

Now Google is not alone in doing this, and Facebook is possibly an even more egregious violator of your private space. Facebook’s business model is also to sell your information to advertisers, and they’re very good at this.

But the difference between using Gmail and using Facebook is an important one: if you quit Facebook, you lose access to all your friends and contacts who are, for better or worse, using the space.

But if you quit Gmail, you can move to an alternative web-based email platform and keep all your emails, all your contacts, as if nothing changed.

You use Facebook (and Twitter and LinkedIn and other social networks) to stay in touch with people who are part of closed digital ecosystems.

But you use Gmail as one of many possible email clients and quitting Gmail doesn’t mean you stop using email.

I’ve seen the difference between using Gmail and using a service that you may have to pay for (but which doesn’t run ads) summed up in this way: for Google, you are not a client, you are an asset.

I’d rather be a client than an asset.  Let me explain why.

I’d rather pay a small amount of money to not see any ads — and more important to protect my privacy from the prying eyes of private corporations aiming to know me better in order to sell me more.

Most of the web-based email services out there are not much better than Gmail when it comes to privacy. But many of them acknowledge the privacy issues raised by Gmail’s practice.

When Microsoft launched as a replacement for Hotmail, it challenged Google on this very issue. In an online table comparing their service to Google’s and Yahoo’s, Microsoft writes that (unlike Gmail and Yahoo Mail) “doesn’t serve targeted ads based on email contents”.

But of course Microsoft is hardly to be trusted with one’s privacy any more than Google is. And one of the “advantages” of using it, they claim, is its tight integration with Facebook, Skype and Twitter. In other words, sharing your personal information across all those platforms rather than letting Google have it. Why do I not feel any more secure reading this?

If you don’t want to be anyone’s “asset” and are willing to pay a company a small amount of money to provide you with a web-based email service, here are the things you should be looking at:

  • How much would it cost?
  • What’s the company’s policy — and record — on privacy?
  • Can I easily migrate all my Gmail contacts and content (emails I’ve sent and received) to the new service?

fmThe service I’ve chosen is Fastmail — an Australian based company that’s been around for 15 years, longer than Gmail.

For a time it was owned by Opera, the Norwegian browser company, but became independent recently as its original owners bought it back.

Here’s how Fastmail stacks up on the issues I raised above:

Cost: The most basic plan is just $10 per year, but that wouldn’t be very useful if you’re a serious email user. I am a very serious user, and I’ve gone for the Enhanced Plan — $40 per year, for which I receive 15 GB of email storage. All my emails in recent years total up to barely a third of that, so it’s plenty of room for most people. So I’m paying £2.00 a month for the privilege of privacy — and for a first-class, extremely fast and intuitive email server.

Fastmail’s privacy: This is a company that really does take privacy seriously. They not only show you no ads and sell your information to no one, but their website goes on at some length about privacy laws in Australia and much more. While there is no guarantee that they will be 100% better than Google, they’re already a lot better by not selling your information to anyone.

Migrating from Gmail: I admit that this had me worried. But actually, Fastmail has a one-click IMAP migration button. You basically tell it your email address on Gmail and your password there, and it goes to work. When it’s done, it sends you an email telling you how many emails it’s imported and where (into which folders) it has put them. It was completely painless. For the handful of people who may write to me at my old Gmail address (see more on this below), I’ve simply instructed Gmail to forward my mail to Fastmail, which it does.

But wouldn’t I have to inform everyone that I no longer have a Gmail address?

I don’t recommend that people use email addresses given to them by their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or web-based email companies. We need the flexibility to change ISPs and change web-based email providers whenever we want to. That’s why my own email address isn’t a Fastmail address or a Gmail address — it’s a address and I’ve had the same one for some 16 years, even though I’ve used a wide range of ISPs and web-based email companies over those years. Getting one’s own domain name is relatively cheap and if you can afford it, set up a permanent email address that will stay with you for life.

I’ve used Fastmail on and off in the past, but am committed to it now and encourage everyone who’s using Gmail, or Yahoo Mail to consider making the shift.

Click here to learn more.

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!

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.