Friday, 17 December 2010

Hichkas - Iranian rapper

Here are a handful of videos from Iranian rapper Hichkas. You might know him from the film Nobody Knows About Persian Cats

Hichkas - Ye Roozeh Khoob Miad

Hichkas - Bunch of Soldiers

Hichkas - Ektelhaf

It's great to see that rap music in Iran, as everywhere else in the world, involves standing around on street corners in large overcoats. However, Hichkas looks great, has some interesting lyrics and certainly shows some of the real Tehran in his videos. Some of his homies look distinctly baby-faced/like they're wearing their sister's coats/they're bank clerks or engineering students.

صفر دو یک

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Mohsen Sazegara on BBC's Taking A Stand

Mohsen Sazegara (محسن سازگارا), Ayatollah Khomenei's press attache, former head of Iran Radio and Revolutionary Guard founder, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Taking A Stand. He made the journey from revolutionary true believer and regime mouthpiece through to reformist newspaper publisher. In the interview though, he fudged a few of the hard questions: particularly those around why he did nothing when political opponents were being executed in prisons.

Interviews like this are supposed to be where people say how sorry they are, if they could go back they would change things, etc. Maybe it is better for people to show no remorse, to avoid giving a straight answer and to simply move on to the next question.

The interview was reminiscent of "Abu Jandal" in I Was Osama Bin Laden's Bodyguard. Jandal is quite clearly still in agreement with al-Qaeda/Bin Laden's critique of the West, goals and up to a certain point, attacks on military targets, methods.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Google adds Yiddish translation - is it good for the Jews?

Some time ago Google Translate added Yiddish to their list of supported languages. Try it out with the Yiddish version of Forward. This potentially opens up troves of Yiddish history and literature to people with a limited grasp of the language. But is it good for the Jews? Or for anyone to have this happen to their language? Does machine translation help preserve a language or does it amerliorate the demise of a language?

Language preservation online

There are two interesting takes on this issue. The first, entitled The Challenges of Language Preservation, gives a good background to the problem and explains how globalisation is merely a step along a long path towards homogenisation of language but the author hopes the internet will be a useful tool for preserving minority language.

The second is a presentation from the TEDx conference, embedded below.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Needles in haystacks vs. needles in very large piles of needles

Everyone knows the saying 'Like finding a needle in a haystack'. You take something very small and put it into something very large and hope it stays hidden because it's too difficult to find. In fact, this is the metaphor implied by the laudable Haystack Network (although it's not exactly how it works!).

The needle (secure communications) is wrapped up in a larger (haystack) of communications. There are lots of ways to can make the needle harder to find. You can make the needle smaller. You can make the haystack larger. But, sometimes someone comes along with a metal detector. They're very good at finding little bits of metal in a very large haystack.

Secure communications are more complex - it's not so much the needle that you're hiding as what's inside the needle. Someone scanning your haystack for needles isn't after the needle, but what's inside. And, when your barn is filled with hay, just one ping on their metal detector (deep packet inspection) lets them know you're hiding needles in there somewhere.

How can you hide your needle (secure communications) when someone is using a metal detector (deep packet inspection, national-scale network snooping)? It's always going to be pretty tough to find out what's inside of the needle. You could find a way to make your needles look more like straw, so it's harder to find them - but, straw-like needles sound like they'd be easy to open. By making your needles more straw-like you're making it easier for someone to get the messages out of them.

A metal needle.
If you know they're using metal detectors, you could switch to ceramic or plastic needles. But science might have already invented a a ceramic detector or plastic detector. Or maybe you try to encourage other people to start putting more needles into the haystack hoping that as more needles are added to the haystack it becomes harder to find the needle you're looking for.

What is that point I am getting to here? It's that Google is turning on SSL encryption for search. That's right - Google just replaced lots of straw with needles. You needles are mixed in with everyone else's - making it much harder to someone to find your needles and whatever is inside of them. If needles are always hard to open, adding more needles is the safest way to protect all needles. You can turn your hay into needles even if your not bothered about people snooping. It just makes everything a little more secure for those people who do need to hide their needles in a hay/needlestack.

And because Google cache lots of pages (search for cache: hopefully you'll be able to securely access a lot more of the internet.

Many people have criticised Google (rightly) for privacy invasions and lots of caveats apply here - there are many potentially weak links in the chain, but SSL encryption for search is a very good thing and it is great to see Google doing this. Many people are more likely to entrust their privacy and security to Google than some other nefarious or weaker-willed companies, organisations, secretive government bodies, etc.

Visit today!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Build your own cellular network

In some countries the existing cellular network providers just aren't reliable. Either the whole network mysteriously fails when you need it most, or you're just not in a position to trust the network providers not to pass on lists of your calls (or even full recordings) to government agencies, phoney lawyers or rival companies. If you value privacy or you are interested in a robust and independent cellular network you might consider building your own.

Looks simple enough, right?
The good thing is - you can do this with some straight-forward commodity computer parts. If you're wanting to provide a (free?) cellular network for your neighbourhood, because of a sudden loss of network connectivity or because you've got a special event happening, you can do that. Want to make sure nobody is snooping on your SMS messages or calls? Route your calls through you own cellular provider!

OpenBTS is an open source Unix application that helps you build a low-cost, flexible cellular network. Field-tested networks have been built with a 10-mile radius for connectivity. That'd be enough to cover... say... downtown Tehran, or Shiraz, or Tabriz. Link up a few of these, making sure they're high enough up and you've got your own city-wide cellular network, capable of routing calls all over the world.

You can buy the kits online. Or, you could follow some instructions and put together your own. The only downside to this is that you'll need an internet connection to plug your cellular network into (which can be a drawback if your country's internet connections are as unreliable as SMS/mobile).

Here are some links to get your started:

Friday, 28 May 2010

Turkish short film about folk music

Here's a great Turkish short film about the government's attempts to stifle folk music and encourage the Westernisation of Turkish culture many years ago.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Encrypted SMS and voice calls for Android phones

People using Android-powered mobile phones can now get encrypted SMS and voice calls. WhisperSystems ( has two apps in beta, available in the Android store.

TextSecure allows you to encrypt your SMS messages and stores all your SMS messages in an encrypted database. It works as a drop-in replacement for your existing Android SMS app.
They've also created RedPhone, an app that provides end-to-end encrypted voice communication. This app has a few neat features: it's difficult for snoopers to work out who you're calling (they'd need to be able to monitor a massive amount of network traffic), your calls go via Wifi or 3G and not your cellular plan (great if your cellular network provider is unreliable) and the apps are going to be open sourced (so you can be sure there's no backdoor).

There are both great apps for people concerned about their privacy or the security of the channels they're communicating over. Worried that your phone provider won't keep the contents of your SMS messages secure or that someone might be snooping on your calls? These two apps will give you some peace of mind. US-only, but coming for international Android phone users soon.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Peer-to-peer SMS mesh for Iran

Iran has notoriously bad SMS networks. They're always dropping out when you need it most. Iranians in the cities love using Bluetooth to send messages and pictures to each other, and many have sophisticated mobile devices.

A more robust system for SMS could bypass the carriers and use a peer-to-peer mesh network in cities to send SMS messages. Everyone running the SMS software could forward messages and, in a large city, with lots of mobiles, it could get to the recipient quickly.

That's the idea, anyway. Some very smart Iranian computer scientists (and there are enough working away on open-source projects and new solutions to the network access problems) could find this an interesting problem to solve. Heck, they could even bake-in encryption from the get-go.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Iran bans Gmail

News reports are coming out that the Iranian government are banning access to Gmail (WSJ, TechCrunch). Maybe this has something to do with Google turning on HTTPS as a default setting for all Gmail users (and making it harder for snoopers to find out what's in the emails users are sending). That was in response to Chinese hackers (government backed?) snooping on Chinese activists using Gmail. Everyone using secure communication makes it harder for for snoopers to find the needle in the haystack.

The ban on Gmail will probably be as successful as the ban on Flickr, Twitter and the bans on Facebook. Iranian Gmail users can take heart in knowing the Iranian government will be launching its own email service. I'm sure the web-based service will have all the same innovative interface features that have made Gmail so successful such as threaded conversations, keyboard shortcuts and sophisticated filters. I doubt they'll be data-mining the content of emails for targeted adverts, either.

Iranians who do decide to use the government's email service can take some simple steps to ensure secure communications over an insecure service. Tools like FireGPG help you encrypt the content of your communications. Details on how to use it here. It needs a smart Iranian Firefox user to integrate it, in Persian/Farsi, with the email service.

If secure communication channels are criminalised, only criminals will use secure communication channels.