Jun 22

Dispatches from the Iranian cyberfront

I’ve spent the last seventeen hours living inside a cyberpunk novel. A libertarian cyberpunk novel. It’s been a weird and awesome experience.

Within an hour after I received a plea for help from Iran, a regular commenter on this blog recruited me into a hacker network that has been forming to support the democratic Iranian revolutionaries by providing them with proxy servers, Tor anonymizers, and any other technologies needed
for them to communicate over channels the Iranian regime cannot censor or control.

I know this network has contacts on the ground among the revolutionaries. I don’t know who they
are, and don’t want to know. Most of the other network members are just names on an IRC channel. But we’re putting together a stealth network at amazing speed. Nothing matters as much as the courage and determination of the Iranians on the ground, but we aim to make a difference in our own way and we have the tools to do it.

This disorganization has only been forming for a very short time. It doesn’t really have leaders. It didn’t have even a name when I joined it, though I’ve given it one that looks like it might stick. Until and unless somebody else steps up to the job, I’m our public contact.

This role carries a non-zero risk that I will be targeted for assassination, or interrogation followed by execution, by agents of the Iranian regime – we’ve had more than one death threat against core members already. I take this risk with eyes open because we need somebody to be public, and I know I’ve already been a jihadi target since 2006; at least I can keep some other poor bastard out of the line of fire. I now expect to remain continuously armed for the duration of the Iranian crisis.

Rostam, this is how I’m answering your plea. We’ll do what we can for your people. For freedom.

To learn more about NedaNet and how you can help, go here.

UPDATE: Actual death threat received. I have taken appropriate precautions.

Jun 21

A plea from Iran

I received an email that deeply moved me a few moments ago. I’m going to reproduce it here exactly, except that (as requested) I am omitting the name of the sender. Because I think I’m going to need a term of reference for him, I am substituting the name of a legendary Persian hero.

My name is [Rostam] , an open source fan and your blog regular commenter …

Regarding to security consideration, PLEASE KEEP MY IDENTITY SECRET !!

I wanted to inform you about what’s happening in Iran , but the the wildness circle of Iran’s religious and dictatorship regime is so that I can just invite you to check this two link in youtube :



Eric, I know that I will maybe face the deadly threats by sending this email. But, I do this because I do believe in freedom.

Inasmuch as, you are one of the most influent persons in one of the most talented community (Hackers) in the world, I humbly ask you write about Iran and what’s going on there.

Please tell the world that Persian people are fight for freedom . Our fight is “weapon less” against a full armored enemy . Our weapon is our great civilization , is our will of freedom and is our prior experience over the history.

PLEASE tell the world that there is no doubt at all that we will see freedom as you saw it after destroying Hitler’s nightmare …

Sincerely Yours , [Rostam]

Rostam, I will indeed blog about this. I begin by publishing your plea, which despite its somewhat broken English is probably as eloquent as anything I could write on the matter. You have my promise of secrecy. I will have more to say in coming days.

And, an interesting contrast with my last email from Iran

Jun 19

Responding to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Overcoming Bias”

This was originally email to Eliezer Yudkowsky about his excellent and thought-provoking blog Overcoming Bias (actually, the links here are to the older newer Less Wrong, which has been re-indexed at Overcoming Bias). Eliezer encouraged me to publish this commentary; I have provided HTML markup and fixed some typos. Warning: the following may be heavy sledding if you are not philosophically literate.

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Jun 17

Reinventing Homosexuality

I’ve recently been reviewing what I know about the historical evidence for how homosexuality has been viewed in other times and places, and doing a bit of additional research into the area. This, which is partly a response to comments by my regulars on some recent essays here, has led me to an interesting perspective on modern debates about homosexuality and sexual liberty.

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Jun 12

How to Type with a Foreign Accent

I spend a lot of time on IRC channels and discussion forums where many of the users are not native speakers of English. Recently one of these expressed surprise when I observed: “You type with a foreign accent. What is your birth language?” He knew, of course, about speaking English with an accent, but he hadn’t encountered before the possibility that the same cues could be observable in written English.

Herewith , some instructions on how to type with an accent. All the examples I will give are utterances I have observed in the wild.

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Jun 04

We are not sheep

I had a breakthrough moment last night. It was on the IRC channel for one of my projects. The developers, and the IRC’s regulars, are a small and tight-knit group. By a coincidence completely unrelated to the nature of the project, we’re all firearms fanciers who take a firm line on Second Amendment rights. Occasionally the IRC chat will turn from project-related technical matters to topics like the relative merits of various pistol calibers.

Occasionally people will show up on the channel looking for project-related help. Some of them become semi-regulars on the channel because they’re often working technical problems for which the project is part of the solution. One of these guys hopped on the channel last night while we happened to be in the middle of a firearms digression, listened for a bit, and then started to spout.

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Jun 01

Extreme punctuation pedantry

Most people don’t know that there are two different philosophical camps that differ about how to do correct punctuation in English. This has been on my mind lately because of some questions I have been asked by non-native speakers on the Battle for Wesnoth development list, where I am the resident English pedant.

The rules we’re taught in school are the syntactic ones; in these, punctuation is a part of the grammar of written English and the rules for where you put it are derived from grammatical phrase structure and pretty strict. Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame is an exponent of this school. But there is another…

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May 27

Some Iron Laws of Political Economics

Mancur Olson, in his book The Logic Of Collective Action, highlighted the central problem of politics in a democracy. The benefits of political market-rigging can be concentrated to benefit particular special interest groups, while the costs (in higher taxes, slower economic growth, and many other second-order effects) are diffused through the entire population.

The result is a scramble in which individual interest groups perpetually seek to corner more and more rent from the system, while the incremental costs of this behavior rise slowly enough that it is difficult to sustain broad political opposition to the overall system of political privilege and rent-seeking.

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May 25

Objective Evidence

This weekend, at Balticon (the Baltimore Science Fiction Convention) I got to play a bit with an infrared-sensing webcam. These turn out not to be very difficult to construct, because CCDs are sensitive well into the IR range. The normal filter blocks IR but passes visible light; by replacing it with fully exposed film stock, which is opaque to visible light but transparent to IR, you get infrared imaging.

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May 22

News from the Linux-adoption front

Well, now. This is interesting: A study of corporate Linux adoption polling 1,275 IT professionals says:

Linux desktop roll out is easier than expected for properly targeted end-user groups

Those with experience are much more likely to regard non-technical users as primary targets for Linux. The message here is that in practice, Linux is easier to deploy to end users than many imagine before they try it.

It’s become fashionable lately to be pessimistic about Linux’s future on the desktop, but I have to say this matches my experience pretty well. The handful of Ubuntu deployments I’ve done in the last couple years for end-users have indeed been easier than one might have expected.

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May 20

California Dreamin’

If it is impossible for something to continue indefinitely, it will eventually stop.

The politics of the modern redistributionist state is founded on the assumption that politicians can buy votes by promising voters ever more munificent entitlements – from federal deposit insurance against bank failures to government-subsidized medical care – with the money for these things always somehow being painlessly extracted from somebody else.

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May 17

Is Danish Dying?

Some years ago I did a speaking tour in Scandinavia that involved staying in Denmark for a couple of days. Denmark, like the other Scandinavian nations I’ve visited, is a tidy little country full of intelligent, civilized, and agreeable people. As long as you can get along with gray sub-arctic weather and gray, characterless food these are interesting places to be – well, at least for someone with my strong interest in history and archeology. Historical museums, here I come!

But while I was in Denmark I kept tripping over odd facts that pointed to a possibly disturbing conclusion: though the Danes don’t seem to notice it themselves, their native language appears to me to be dying. Here are some of the facts that disturbed me:

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May 07

Engage the balonium generator, Scotty!

I enjoy a game called “Commands and Colors: Ancients”, which I’ve blogged about here before. It’s a simulation of tactical ancient warfare that uses special dice to resolve battles. In any given battle you can consider each six-sided die to have faces labeled with the symbols Miss, Miss, Hit, Sword, Helmet, Flag. To improve my play, I decided to generate and study a table of the odds of getting a specified number of hits when a specified number of dice is rolled. I set out to write a Python program to do this.

There are special circumstances under which flags and helmets convert to hits, so the program actually needs to print out several tables and is not entirely trivial. Still, it is computing on a mathematically simple model with strictly bounded computational cost – except for war elephants. These units have the special ability that when they roll a sword, the sword is counted as a hit and then rerolled. (This may make more sense if you think of a sword roll as representing impact damage.) You keep rolling and marking hits as long as the die keeps coming up swords.

To calculate the non-elephant probabilities I enumerated eight entire state spaces for each of 1 to 8 dice (the most you can ever roll under the rules – takes Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar leading a Heavy unit with the the Clash of Shields +2 bonus active), then counted up instances of each distinct outcome (so many misses, hits, swords, flags, banners) to assign a probability mass to each.

(Statisticians often think in terms of probability mass or probability weight, which has to be conserved as a distribution changes. It’s analogous to thinking of electricity as a fluid.)

I then had to write code to mutate a copy of each distribution according to the elephants’ sword-reroll rule. To do this, each outcome containing a sword hit needs its probability mass divided by six and reallocated to itself and five other outcomes with one fewer sword apiece; you stop reallocating when the probability mass on a sword-containing outcome drops below a very low noise level.

That particular piece of code gave me more trouble than the rest of the program put together. At one point I grumbled to a friend who had been following the project “I’m having persistent bugs in my probability mass reallocator.”

He looked right back at me and said, with a perfectly straight face, “Have you considered reversing the polarity of the neutron flow?”

May 06

What I have learned from science fiction

I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.

Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.

Here are some of them…

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May 02

I may have to disable IntenseDebate

I may have to disable IntenseDebate. The interface for approving/deleting/spam-flagging posts seems broken since sometime yesterday; I suspect some sort of database problem at intensedebate.com, as my local Javascript hasn’t changed.

If you have left a comment which has not appeared, have patience. I will try untangling the mess from my home machine Sunday night when I get home from my current road trip.