Philanthropists implored to liberate educational content. Blackboard patent flunks. A precious baby.

This is a petition organised by Larry Sanger, whose baby was Wikipedia (which gained its 10 millionth article today), and who now works on its fork Citizendium – a free, publicly-written encyclopaedia with a light editorial touch.

Larry proposes that philanthropists (disapproved or or even detested by Socialists because they entrench inequalities, but there we are) commission or buy educational content and post it free on the Web. I think this is an excellent direction.

I think that closed licenses for stuff that costs nothing to reproduce (i.e. online stuff) are incredibly unjust – they’re a throwback to a bygone age. They’re anti-education. We shouldn’t be paying for any kind of text now, unless we have to pay for its medium and labour – the paper, ink, printing, distribution, &tc. Otherwise it’s wrong. It’s unethical. It shafts the world’s poor and concentrates wealth and knowledge with people who already have it. It’s a travesty*.

Attribution is another thing – people should get to take credit for their work (if they must). That doesn’t cost anybody money. And, relatedly, people should get refusal over somebody editing their stuff. That doesn’t cost anybody money either. And this kind of licensing exists already for people who want to signal that their work is freely available for reuse – it’s called Creative Commons, it’s a combination of any (‘some rights reserved’) or all (‘all rights reserved’) of 4 different licenses, and you can use it without any hassle whatsoever. Here’s an example – The Future of Reputation. Gossip, Rumour and Privacy on the Internet by Daniel J Solove. If you want a bound paper copy (aka ‘book’), you pay. If you don’t, you don’t pay.

The old publishing models are normal because people haven’t quite grasped the implications of the Web yet, so there’s no point me going on. And not everybody has an e-reader like me. But there’s a big effort going on to close the Web in order that every part of it should be profitable, and this militates against taking advantage of the things the Web lets us do – namely duplicate for next to no cost. So people should get with the programme (although I’m not nearly as active as I’d like to be in campaigning for Open stuff).

Further to that, a tentative woo hoo. The US Patent and Trademarks Office has, in a ‘non-binding’ ‘preliminary’ decision, rejected all 44 of Blackboards attempts to patent Virtual Learning Environments. Moodle users are a bit safer today. Despite my cautious reception of this news I had to indulge myself with several expletives because this is extremely welcome news. I performed a frantic triumphal dance until my boss said a firm “Thank you”, which was my signal to leave his office.

Oh of course I have, though. My oldest friend had this absolutely gorgeous little scrap of a baby. When she cries she looks like her mum. I love her and I think she loves me back – here she is holding my hand. We decided to name her after her mother’s favourite tipple, the brew that was flowing the evening she was conceived: Chianti.**

Baby S

*Disclosure: I’m a Microsoft user and I pay for music too. All mouth, string trousers.

**Only joking.

Eulogy to Veg

We miss Veg.

The anecdotes, the imitations, the pints of cider, the shouty, know-it-all ways.

Plus he’s generous, interesting and also considerate.

What’s the point of the clocks going forward if Bacchus isn’t in the bar?

We think he should come back immediately, house or no house, parrots or no parrots.

“Anti-imperialist” or “for peace”? NUT Motion 55.

This was a private post (got cold feet, though I might be being bad on teachers) but since Angela Tilby’s Thought for the Day and John Gaunt in the Sun – ‘Fire the Creeps Who Hate Our Boys – respond with a shared point (an isolated good point in John Gaunt’s case) about the good qualities found in soldiers, many of which are upheld by the government’s soft skills (‘life skills’, non- or less-examined skills like negotiation, trustworthiness, self-discipline, teamwork, unselfishness etc) agenda, and since I read the well-reasoned piece by a puckish David T on Harry’s Place on ‘Should Members of Totalitarian Parties Be Banned from Teaching in Universities?‘, I thought why not me. So here it is.

The army, navy and airforce came to my school’s careers fair. They were unsensational. At the time I thought of them as little better than murderers and relieved my fury by glowering in the direction of their stalls from a pointedly far-off distance. That was before it had dawned on me that my pacifism involved turning my precious moral back on any potential victim who doesn’t want to sit around idly waiting to be struck down by their violent aggressors.

Today the NUT voted for at least part of their messy Motion 55, titled simply ‘War’, and chose to support members who wanted to keep the army out of schools. It’s one thing to want to protect young people at an impressionable age from exposure to advertising for a particularly life-threatening career. But this NUT advocate of Motion 55 (and Socialist Worker Party member) put a different slant on it:

Paul McGarr, a delegate from East London, told the conference: “Personally I find it difficult to imagine any recruitment material that is not misleading. Let’s just try and imagine what that recruitment material would have to say were it not to be misleading.

“We would have material from the MoD saying ‘Join the army and we will send you to carry out the imperialist occupation of other people’s countries. Join the Army and we will send you to bomb, shoot and possibly torture fellow human beings in other countries’.

“Until then, I think that all recruitment material is misleading and should be opposed,” he said.*

To me the terms ‘imperialist’ and ‘anti-imperialist’, formerly the preserve of adherents of Communism, are these days tainted with the unreflective loathing of the United States and its allies – none more than Israel – and a promiscuous tendency to support any faction which stands in the way of their interests, no matter how reactionary and repressive. Hamas, Hesbollah, Al Quaeda, Ahmedinejad’s regime in Iran have all found favour with self-styled anti-imperialists. As Brett points out on Harry’s Place this week, anti-imperialist politics (as interpreted by StWC) regularly clash with other socialist politics, leading to a ‘totem pole’ approach to rights with, in the case Brett refers to, women’s and LBGT rights at the bottom. Moreover Hamas etc haven’t to my knowledge rejected imperialism – they’re not socialist and are probably aspiring monopoly capitalists and colonisers themselves (to my knowledge that is the definition of imperialism).

So when somebody uses the word “imperialist” in this way they reveal their anti-capitalist politics, but they don’t reveal anything about what they want for human beings, or how they feel about peace. Doesn’t need saying that everybody is wholly entitled to their political views – but the opportunity to push them on school pupils is removed from teachers by the 1996 Education Act (Section 5, Paragraphs 406-7):

406 Political indoctrination

(1) The local education authority, governing body and head teacher shall forbid-

(a) the pursuit of partisan political activities by any of those registered pupils at a maintained school who are junior pupils, and

(b) the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school.

(2) In the case of activities which take place otherwise than on the school premises, subsection (1)(a) applies only where arrangements for junior pupils to take part in the activities are made by-

(a) any member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such), or

(b) anyone acting on behalf of the school or of a member of the school’s staff (in his capacity as such).

(3) In this section “maintained school” includes a maintained special school established in a hospital.

407 Duty to secure balanced treatment of political issues

(1) The local education authority, governing body and head teacher shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils while they are-

(a) in attendance at a maintained school, or

(b) taking part in extra-curricular activities which are provided or organised for registered pupils at the school by or on behalf of the school,

they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.

(2) In this section “maintained school” includes a maintained special school established in a hospital.

This is precisely the part of the 1996 Education Act invoked in Motion 55 to keep the MoD out of schools. So when Motion 55 gets support, with the blurted out word “imperialist”, from SWP members (and I could be wrong but it has all the hallmarks of an SWP motion), it suddenly takes on a tit-for-tat hue.

A little more about Motion 55. It is part of the crop of silly, time-wasting motions (such as UCU’s Motion 30 which explicitly legitimised antisemitism) which have the finger prints of the Socialist Workers Party all over them. 55 is a complete sprawling mess. It calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq (contra to the wishes of most Iraqis – see q22 of this February 08 poll), and blames the lack of resolution for 750,000 Palestinian refugees for ‘entrenching opponents of the world’s most militarised states in a conviction that real peace, democracy and equality are not what those powers aspire to in these more recent conflicts’. Well, for a start, there are not very many of the 750,000 refugees still alive It also objects to what it terms partisan Key Stage 4 materials produced by the MoD, claiming that they fall outside the law, but not campaigning to have them pulled but instead resolving to do the equal and opposite with StWC materials ‘mindful of the existing legal guidelines’. Nice sidestep, but signals muddled values. 55 also proposes that the NUT circulate some of the dreadful propaganda produced by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign amongst themselves – good luck to them.

The NUT resolutions aren’t available yet. I wonder whether the motion was passed in full. If so it would be interesting to see, given the clauses above, if StWC are capable of producing educational materials which would be allowed within a mile of a school curriculum. It’s strange that, given a lengthy objection to Key Stage if the MoD are outside the law, and they object to it on that basis, then why not campaign for the MoD stuff to be pulled…?

Day of the vegans – The Observer, Sunday 23rd March

I tell you I almost felt normal.

Nigel Slater tells readers that a vegan coming to dinner is no reason to panic (that’s a bit of a backhander), and then proceeds to knock up old faithful thai curry by another name (but my standards are so low I’m still brimming with gratitude).

Jay Rayner, vegan baiter and my personal bête noire, did a plausibly enthusiastic review of an eco-friendly restaurant in N1 called Waterman. His final sentence is worth quoting because this is exactly what vegans hope for, usually in vain, as we try to negotiate our meals in common or garden restaurants:

To me it felt like a slash of post-feminist scarlet lipstick – an understanding that you can have principles and keep to them without having to sacrifice anything in the way of joy.

I sometimes wear scarlet lipstick when not in disguise, and I like – I love – good, rich food. It’s exciting when journalists come out in favour of food I can eat.

In the News section on p31 there’s a big and ominous spread on food and hurting the planet. As well as practical advice on when it’s good and when bad to buy food from abroad, Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network is quoted as saying:

‘There is only one way of being sure that you cut down on your carbon emissions when buying food: stop eating meat, mil, butter and cheese,’ said Garnett. ‘These come from ruminants – sheep and cattle – that produce a great deal of harmful methane. In other words, it is not the source of the food that matters but the kind of food you eat.

Reminded me that the nearest I’ve come to getting belted by my father-out-law was when I told him this a year or so ago. And 3 years ago when Matt announced to him that I had become vegan, you could hear him swearing down the phone from across the room. As a cheffy cook, he doesn’t like it at all (although he has risen to the occasion admirably) but maybe he’d take it from Tara Garnett. There’s also the Food Ethics Council.

But – and it pains me – I have to nod to Jay Rayner again: for everybody, but particularly for people who are older, younger, not well, not wealthy, or not well-educated, there is the important matter of nutrition. The authors of The Observer article completely neglect this when they’re telling their readers to forego meat and dairy products. Morally undermining fundamental parts of most people’s diets without proposing alternatives doesn’t strike me as a very good idea at all for behaviour change, and Nigel’s thai curry will only get you so far – particularly if you’re ‘panicking’.

It’s not so hard though, being vegan.

All in all, maybe things are beginning to look up for vegans. And if they’re looking up for vegans then a strengthening body of evidence says they’re looking up for everyone. Including many different animals, although The Observer couldn’t care less about them.

China’s bad script

Coming down hard on the monasteries again, as if they were the main seat of the sedition – when all the pictures I’ve seen of torching and smashing have been of kids who don’t look like they’ve seen a prayer wheel in a long time if ever.

China does authoritarianism like a pantomime dame. The Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu gets quoted referring to “patriotic education” classes, and saying that religions “should never undermine national solidarity”. Not “national security”, “national solidarity”.

Conscience doesn’t feature.

The Interrogation of the Good

From David Semple on Though Cowards Flinch via Bob From Brockley:

The Interrogation of the Good – Bertolt Brecht 

Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.

You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?

Hear us then: we know.
You are our enemy. This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration
of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.

Israel and its settlements

I have a lot to learn about peace settlements. I was interested to find out from Jonathan Rynhold (Bar Ilan University) at the recent SOAS-hosted Israel and the Great Powers conference that Annapolis falls into the category of what he confidently termed ‘conflict management’ – not conflict resolution but instead an affirmation of the goals, restatement of endpoints, a maintenance of communication calculated to prevent a regional escalation and keep the paths to a final settlement open – but with nobody really expecting to reach it. The reason conflict management is adopted is that it’s low stakes negotiations in a situation where neither party is in a position to make peace – because their respective publics aren’t – and consequently where no third party state wants to take on the role of backer, or guarantor, picker-up of pieces if it all goes wrong and erupts again as happened at the end of Oslo in 2000. So we are in a phase of conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, then? And how does this fit with the polls which consistently show a desire for a two-state solution?

Considering Israel’s ongoing settlement expansion, I grudgingly entertain the idea that there is a case, of one sort or another, to be made for them but I have yet to come across it. How has the settler movement made settlements desirable? It seems that the Defence Ministry is involved in approving a number of projects in the haredi settlement cities of Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit, as well as in Ma’aleh Adumim, which has a mixed Orthodox and secular population.

Annapolis was only the most recent agreement to commit Israel to “freeze all settlement activity” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – in accordance with the Road Map (which itself was based on the Mitchell Report into the origins of the Second Intifada). Mark Regev says that Israel did not undertake to stop building in the large blocs planned to remain with Israel according to current peace agreements. So why is Condoleeza Rice so disappointed with the cabinet, then?

This demand for a freezing of activity is of enormous importance to final status negotiations, not least because it would restore badly-needed confidence in the Fatah leadership – the ones Israel prefers to negotiate with.

And then there’s the issue of the illegal outposts, often populated by dangerous militant nationalists. A recent Israeli High Court ruling decided that the “outpost” of Migron, which was “unauthorised”, is to be evacuated by August, and 17 other outposts will also go. This is welcome – these are the first since Olmert took power. It’s not easy to negotiate evacuation without violence, but Sharon managed it with authorised settlers in Gaza.

But instead Israel has approved 300 new apartments at Har Homa. After the suicide bombing which killed 8 pupils at the Mercav Harav seminary, the religious right threatened more settlements. Shas took credit for 750 new apartments authorised in Agan Ha’ayalot project north of Jerusalem by a weak Prime Minister who admits that he did it to keep Shas in his coalition. There’s even talk of 10,000 new apartments planned for a new neighbourhood near Atarot, although Mark Regev distanced the Israeli government from these.

Although I have some sympathy for an attachment to land and support people’s right to negotiate to live wherever they want to live, providing it doesn’t avoidably interfere with the interests of the people already living there. It shouldn’t need repeating that the religious justification for the settlements is no justification. It’s no surprise if this ongoing settlement activity is interpreted as a provocation. Based on everything I’ve found, it’s counter to both humanitarian and diplomatic interests.

What I don’t seem to be able to find out is the extent to which diplomatic interests share common ground with security interests, because in practice Israel’s security interests trump all the other cards. I think I share this difficulty with boycotters and anti-Zionists – but unlike them I allow it to stop me from scoring easy points.That said I would not want these religious nationalist people – the ones who want to expand – in my government. They’re a liability to peace.