Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I’m writing about Iran. Not about the missiles. A lot has already been said about the missiles, much of it quite good. I left this blog over the summer amid a flurry of moving apartments and other people’s weddings, and it doesn’t seem right to follow my posts about the protests with nothing.

I am sad about Iran. The protests aren’t going on much anymore, Ahmadinejad was inaugurated, and it’s clear that public outrage didn’t count for much this time. The emperor may have no clothes, but he sure has an army. This sucks, obviously for Iran’s reformers, but also for all of us who were rooting for them. I was a child when the iron curtain fell. This is the first time I’ve been caught up in a revolution I was old enough to understand, and it was particularly gripping to watch one that involved so many things I care about (democracy, media, freedom from dictatorship).

It wasn’t just abstract concepts, either. What made the story compelling was how personal it was. You could search twitter for Iran and spend hours reading 140 characters of news and reactions that had been posted by people, like you. You could go on youtube and see hours of footage of demonstrators waving green. I remember an apolitical coworker coming to me this summer, distraught because she’d seen the video of Neda, a young protestor who was killed by police. “She was in her twenties, she was engaged, she loved the arts...I am this girl.” Traditional media can report on the stories of individuals in the midst of turmoil; they may even do an excellent job of telling them. But there’s just something about reading and watching people reporting their own stories, even if it’s unpolished. Watching a cell phone video someone shot of the police chasing protestors down a side street. If it looks as grainy as the video I shot with my orange EV at my friend’s wedding last week, that makes it feel more real, not less.

And it felt like we were all rooting for the reformers. Google put out a beta Persian translator, my friends posted status updates about how to thwart the revolutionary guard, and even the illegal torrenting site Pirate Bay temporarily renamed itself Persian Bay. If there’s anything positive that comes out of this, I hope it’s a feeling of increased community between Iranian civilians and the rest of the world. Those of us who would never have had an opportunity to travel there were glued to our computers this spring and summer, watching what happened.

I’m not arguing that this was a victory. The optimists among us point out that these things often take time. It took 13 years took get rid of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and even longer to get rid of Suharto in Indonesia. True, the Communist Party of China was able to survive Tienanmen Square, but that was in large part because of the country’s economic growth and openness to free enterprise. Iran has a soaring inflation rate, its banking system is clunky and heavily regulated, and the government’s saber rattling has turned off potential trading partners. It’s doubtful this regime is competent enough to be able to buy off its people. If it’s going to survive in its present form, that leaves military dictatorship.

This may well be what happens; I’m sure most of us would rather it didn’t. I hope, however, that something comes of the affinity a lot of us foreigners felt with the protesters. Many of us have felt we don’t have much to contribute, other than turning our avatars green and attacking the occasional government, web site. I hope, however, that we provided something by serving as witnesses.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Denial of Service Attacks for Dummies

Last night, I was so outraged by a report on the NY Times blog about the Iranian government posting photos of demonstrators and asking visitors to identify them. A quick perusal of the page with Google Persian Translator I'm usually a fanatical fan of free speech, but the idea of a government using the web to pick on nonviolent demonstrators was too much for me. We may not be able to do anything about the government sicing basiji on the protesters, but we can certainly do something when they try to get them with the web. The outrage prompted me to google some means of shutting the site down. (Caveat: Cyberwar guide reminds us to only attack sites recommended by trusted sources. I felt this qualified because it was mentioned in the Times, and because I researched the page myself.)

The simplest kind of site attack is a Denial of Service attack. This works by sending so many requests to a site's server that it shuts down. Every time you connect to a site, you send a request, so the best way to send a lot of requests to a site is to reload it over and over. If you can open a browser and hit reload, you can help.

An even better way, however, is to have your computer automatically reload the page for you. You can leave this it running for hours on end. In the case of the protest-busting site above, I opened 20 browser tabs, set them to reload every 5 seconds, and left them on overnight. When I woke up in the morning, the site was down.

Here's how to do it:
1. Open firefox. If you don't have firefox, you can download it here.
2. Download the "Reload Every" tool from the Mozilla site. Install it and restart Firefox.
3. Go to the site you want to attack.
4. Right click on the site's homepage. Mouse over "reload every" and select "5 seconds"
4.5. (Or, if you want to be really devious) Right click on the site's homepage, mouse over "reload every" and select "custom". It will ask you to specify an amount of time for it to keep reloading. Set it to 1 second.
6. Leave it running for as long as you like. If you're feeling especially subversive, open multiple browser tabs and repeat the above instructions.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Worldwide Iranian Protests

View Locations of Iran Elections Protests in a larger map

(Reposted so that it stays on top.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Letters to Ahmadinejad

Diversion doesn't work forever.

HBO is airing a Swedish documentary called "Letters to the President", about the phenomena of people writing letters to Ahmadinejad asking him to solve their problems. It's an interesting move - people write in and ask for money, help, medicine, water to irrigate their crops - and he has a staff that answers them. About 90% of the letters are answered, sometimes with face to face meetings with goverment officials, and occasionally with meetings with Ahmadinejad himself. The movie was completed before the election, but featured protest-like schemes in which Ahmadinejad's motorcade was mobbed by people seeking to deliver their letters.

The odd thing is many of the issues people are trying to address are symptoms of systemic problems, rather than just individual misfortune. There's "I have cancer," but there's also "I need a bank loan to buy sheep and the banks won't give it to me because they don't have the money," and "I can't irrigate my crops because my village doesn't have access to water." Women waiting in line to see him complain that inflation is so high they can't afford basic food; one cries as she says she had to save for 3 weeks to buy her child strawberries. One person comments that inflation was 10% under the previous administration, and is 90% now. Others complain that although Ahmadinejad promises public works projects in the provinces, inefficient local management means that local leaders only begin them a week before he comes to visit, and stop them after he leaves.

It's excellent PR, and appears to work in some of the poorer provinces (although apparently not in the cities, where a series of cool guys with cigarettes tell the camera the president doesn't do anything.) But even in the rural areas, it seems to be cracking. In one scene, Ahmadinejad has a town hall discussion with farmers. Before speaking, he gets them to chant "Death to America" and "Nuclear energy is our right!" The farmers' concerns, however, have little to do with America or nukes. One old man tells the president he lost two sons in the Iran-Iraq war, and now cannot irrigate his crops because the village has no water. Ahmadinejad promises water will be delivered, and quickly changes the subject to the man's sons, asking if anyone has a picture of the martyr, and giving a long speech about the fallen. He then goes off about how Iran is going to crush its enemies and tells the crowd that there is poverty elsewhere in the world, that the U.S. has 40 million homeless unemployed and no social service agencies. He does not explain what this has to do with bringing water to the old man's crops.

Diversion doesn't work forever, and eventually exposes itself. It did here, where banning gay marriage proved unrelated to providing jobs and health care, and it has in Iran as well. Demonizing others is just no substitute for not sucking.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Freedom is Contagious

In the spirit of the Iranian protests, I thought I should link to a "This I Believe" essay by Harold Koh, a law professor and Obama state dept nominee. He writes about freedom's power to light up people's eyes. Here's the an excerpt:

During the summer that Nixon resigned, I was visiting Seoul. Someone tried to assassinate Korea's president and he declared martial law. I called my father and marveled that Korea had never enjoyed a peaceful transition of government. Meanwhile, the world's most powerful government had just changed hands without anyone firing a shot. He said, "Now you see the difference: In a democracy, if you are president, then the troops obey you. In a dictatorship, if the troops obey you, then you are president."

And so I studied law, became a law school professor and dean, and eventually a human rights official for the State Department. I traveled to scores of countries. Everywhere I went -- Haiti, Indonesia, China, Sierra Leone, Kosovo -- I saw in the eyes of thousands the same fire for freedom I had first seen in my father's eyes. More

Map of Worldwide Iranian Elections Demostrations

View Locations of Iran Elections Protests in a larger map

Wear green to support the Protests

From the Time magazine photo essayThere's a movement encouraging people around the world to wear green in support of the protesters in Iran. This is especially important for us Americans. Obviously, our countries have their political differences, but thousands of ordinary Iranians turned out for vigils in support of the American people after 9/11. Now it's our turn to support them.