Audio Things!

I’ve really gotten into podcasts this summer. Normally, I find them difficult to focus my attention on, but some habits I’ve picked up recently have helped with this: I started running regularly, and I started playing Euro Truck Simulator 2. In fact, I liked the latter so much that I started a blog about it at

Just as French Fries are my delivery vehicles for ketchup, these new activities are my delivery vehicles for podcasts.

Well, I haven’t only been listening to podcasts. In particular, while driving my virtual truck around Europe, I’ve been listening to the BBC World Service. This was largely motivated by my desire to feel European, but it’s an excellent station nonetheless.

I’ve also been listening to audiobooks, which has been made particularly enjoyable by Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice technology. This allows me to effortlessly switch between the Kindle and audio versions of a book, depending on the context (both media can be purchased together for a low price). Using this, I alternately read and listened to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I highly recommend to anyone living in America.

And then there are the podcasts. Some of them are the staples that most people I know have heard of, like Radiolab and This American Life; I listen to them and they’re amazing for pretty obvious reasons. But there’s a few potentially lesser-known ones I’d like to highlight:

  • Life of the Law is my latest obsession. I first discovered this through the 99% Invisible episode An Architect’s Code, which both shows collaborated on. It’s a fascinating podcast that contextualizes our legal system in ways that make people like me, who are normally bored to tears by the law, utterly enthralled. This is probably aided by the fact that, like Planet Money—another unexpectedly fascinating show—every episode is relatively short and focused.
  • On The Media is consistently interesting to me because it examines the way the media covers current events. I’m not always interested in current events in and of themselves, but I am fascinated by the way the media covers them, so this podcast is often my gateway to understanding what’s going on in the world.
  • Spark was recommended to me by Mark Surman and I love it because it’s a show about technology for people who aren’t, well, obsessed with it. This means that topics often focus on the impact of technology on society, with a great balance of coverage between its positive and negative effects.

I’ve been using an iPhone app called Downcast to listen to these, and have found it much more convenient and usable than the default Podcasts app.

If there are any podcasts you regularly listen to and think I might enjoy, please feel free to tweet your suggestions @toolness.

In Defense of Sweatshops

Back in 2001, I made a satirical site for Nike Sweatshops, arguing that poverty is a great thing for capitalism.

Poverty is a great thing for capitalism, but Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist—which I recently picked up from Dog Eared Books and finished this morning—offers an excellent explanation for why sweatshops and similar forms of foreign investment are ultimately a good thing for the world.

What impresses me most about The Undercover Economist is Harford’s underlying humanitarianism. This is someone who thinks that free markets are beautiful, yet who also believes that anyone who loses their job for reasons beyond their control deserves help and support. For anyone who’s grown weary of the demonization of the modern corporation—yet who nonetheless is skeptical of the benefits of a free-market economy—this book offers a refreshing perspective on the world and human behavior.

Herdict: The Verdict of the Herd

I’m still in the middle of reading The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but one of the major “take-aways” from the book is a software suite that Zittrain has been working on at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society called Herdict, which is a portmanteau of “herd” and “verdict”.

From what I understand, one component of the suite, Herdict for Network Health, is a Firefox/IE plug-in that allows an end-user’s computer to tell “the herd”—that is, the other users of the software as a single anonymous entity—what sites it can access. If a user can’t access a particular site, they can ask the herd for more information; this “verdict” can help determine whether you can’t access a site because the site is down (in which case the entire herd can’t access it), or because a firewall is in the way (in which case only some of the herd can access it). This information can then be used to generate a snapshot of Internet health by geography, and empowers users to figure out the true cause behind cryptic messages like “The Connection Has Been Reset”.

The other component of the suite, Herdict for PC Health, is analogous in that it uses the same “herd verdict” concept to figure out how your PC is doing. Anonymized configuration data is sent from your computer to the herd, and if your computer is running slowly or abnormally, the herd can be queried for advice. Assuming that the Herdict software itself isn’t compromised, this can help identify malware, as well as pinpointing the causes of less malevolently-intentioned computer malfunction. For instance, if your computer keeps crashing, consultation with the herd could result in the discovery that everyone with your graphics card has been having the same problem, implying that you may need to change your graphics card drivers.

It looks like the network health component is still under development, but an initial version of the PC health software has been released and is available for download. It’s only available for Windows, so I installed it on my Mac’s VMware virtual machine running Windows XP; there isn’t much to say about it, because it doesn’t currently appear to have any usable features. Right-clicking the program’s tray icon and selecting a “View Data Sent” option from the popup menu just results in a dialog box with the text “There are no logs to be displayed”, despite the fact that the software has been running for a few hours. Selecting the “Herdict Online” option takes me to a Herdometer web page where all the data is aggregated for public use.

It’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that reminds me of Mitchell Baker’s desire to see Mozilla address the issue of data. Herdict is an example of software that uses data about the sites you visit and the programs you install on your computer for honorable ends, publishing it in an anonymized and aggregate form that is useful as a public asset.

The only thing I’m really curious about right now is: why isn’t Herdict open-source software? It seems like the ideal kind of project to open-source for a variety of reasons, and the non-profit, public benefit goals of the Berkman Center certainly seem to agree with the philosophy of community-based development. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing this project evolve; it’s wonderful to see experiments that try to make the Internet and PCs safer places without sacrificing freedom and generativity.

Towards Inter-Community Trust

In my recent post on Trusting Functionality I alluded to a socially-based framework for trust that would allow software to be generative and safe at the same time.

When trying to figure out a solution to this problem, I realized that there are already communities on the internet that have built-in social mechanisms for trust. Python, for example, is a language notorious for its lack of protection against untrusted code. Yet we don’t see much concern that a Python script may contain malicious code, even though it has the ability to do whatever it wants to our computer. Why is this?

One obvious answer has to do with the users of Python code: because there’s relatively few of them and they tend to be quite technically skilled, there’s a high risk involved in creating malicious Python code, and little economic gain to be made from it.

But another answer, I think, has something to do with community. A open-source community is a lot like a corporation with a few key differences: its processes are largely transparent, and the software itself is almost guaranteed to be developed by its users. The former allows for peer review and accountability, while the latter helps ensure that the software’s features are always in the best interests of the users. These are pre-existing social mechanisms that help create trust between an open-source community and its stakeholders.

So ultimately, a project’s community can be at least as reliable as a corporate entity: the economic incentive structure of the latter is replaced by a social incentive structure in the former. I trust that the Python SVN repository won’t contain malicious code because I trust the community to only grant commit privileges to those it trusts, and I trust the community’s server administrators to ensure that the domain won’t be hacked.

Another advantage of the transparency of open communities is the fact that—since well before the advent of Facebook and MySpace—they have meaningful social networks embedded in them. One merely has to take a look at the Subversion commit logs for the Python code repository to see who its most highly-respected members are, for instance, and public newsgroups and forums can be mined to discover other relationships. What this means is that it’s possible for us to infer—or be told explicitly—what individuals a community trusts.

So, individuals trust certain open communities and vice versa. This information can be leveraged to create a relatively low-cost web of trust which can be used in a variety of ways.

For instance, let’s assume for a moment that Mozilla’s source control system at supported OpenID and had a simple web API that allowed a remote service to query whether or not a particular user has commit privileges. This would allow Ubiquity‘s source control system—which is hosted here on Toolness—to instantly inherit the permission system from Mozilla: anyone trusted enough to have commit privileges to Mozilla’s code repository would instantly be able to commit to Ubiquity. (This is, by the way, the reason that Ubiquity isn’t currently hosted on it forces us to think of ways to decentralize the Mozilla community.)

There’s at least one existing web of trust that we can draw from, too: the open-source social networking site Ohloh uses a ranking system called Kudos, which could be used as a rough measure of trust, to make inferences about whether an arbitrary piece of code from a known programmer can be trusted.

Such webs of trust would be useful for things other than code, too; it could be used as an alternative to spam-filtering to determine whether content can be trusted. Imagine a workflow in which blog software draws from publicly-available social history to see if a comment posted by an OpenID-logged-in user is spam. This means, for instance, that my Wikipedia history and my Yelp standing could be used to infer that a comment I leave on a blog isn’t spam, obviating the need for frustrating and error-prone captchas.

Inter-community trust doesn’t have to be the only form of trust we use to make our decisions, either; it can easily be used in conjunction with the hierarchical trust system that the web currently uses, for instance; or individual webs of trust can be leveraged from existing social network sites like LinkedIn, as long as the final solution doesn’t inconvenience the end-user.

This is just one potential social solution to the problem of participating in a digital ecosystem with bad actors who have economic incentives to hurt others. If you have any ideas for other solutions to the trust problem, or know of any existing ones, I’d love to hear them.

The Morality of Bottled Water recently published an interesting interview with Elizabeth Royte, the author of a new book called Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.

It’s definitely worth a read, I think. One of the biggest takeaways from it is the fact that the whole “8 cups of water a day” maxim isn’t so much a myth as a misinterpretation that’s been promulgated by the water industry: yes, we need 8 cups of water a day, but we already get most of it from the water contained in the food we eat. And as with most environmentally and ethically-conscious texts, it looks like this one ultimately prescribes a local solution: get your water locally, whether it’s from a tap or—if you’re in a place that has extremely poor public water—a bottle.

I don’t really consider myself to be an environmentalist, but I really like the idea of “staying local”. For me, it’s largely just an issue of understanding small, simple systems versus enormous, complex ones. It’s also an issue of observability. Things immediately around you are easier to perceive and understand the nature of; it’s relatively straightforward to know whether the people in your community are happy with something, because they’re your friends and neighbors and you can talk to them. One of the most startling realizations I had in college while researching the issue of sweatshops was that there was actually no way for me to truly know whether people who worked in sweatshops were unhappy that they had their job without either going to the affected area and seeing things for myself or doing an enormous amount of research; otherwise, any single account portraying a positive picture could be dismissed as corporate propaganda, while authors of negative portrayals could have their own agendas. And either way, reading reams of journalistic accounts in an effort to obtain a balanced perspective or traveling the world myself would be a huge time investment. Much easier, and far more satisfying, would be to simply obtain my clothing from someone I knew and trusted, who obtained their raw materials from someone they knew and trusted, and so on.

This isn’t to say that one should be blind to the things that are affecting the globe, of course, because ultimately the things that happen around the world do affect us whether we like it or not. It’s rather that whenever I read things like this interview, I become acutely aware that it is by no means a trivial matter to be certain of what’s true and what’s not in today’s world, especially as the players become more aware of what people find truthful and use it to manipulate people to their own ends. A recent book by Farhad Manjoo called True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society seems to address this issue, and I think I may pick it up soon.

Slightly Old Stuff

The following is a summary of stuff I worked on before the new Toolness was created, but after I stopped maintaining any of my old sites.


Narrowcaster – During the summer of 2004, I realized how great RSS syndication was and decided to get an aggregator. Unfortunately, all of them were horribly complicated: highly modal interfaces, tons of tabs and controls and buttons to mess around with and what have you. Taking some inspiration from the design of Google News, I whipped up my own aggregator using Python and MySQL. The interface is relatively humane, and the aggregator features some built-in filtering of certain feeds: for instance, stories from Slashdot that I’m not interested in–e.g., anything under their “Linux” category–are automatically filtered out. Since this was created solely for personal use, it’s still rather buggy in some rarely-used places; nonetheless, one year later, I (and at least one other person I know) still use this aggregator multiple times per day. The name “narrowcaster” refers to the concept of narrowcasting, which I first encountered in Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital.

SWKOTOR2 Secret Tomb Bugfix – In June 2005, I played through Star Wars – Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which ended up being a terrific game. However, there were also a number of major scripting-related bugs in the game, a few of which tripped me up while I was playing it. After finding out about some of the restoration projects going on to fix the game’s bugs and restore some of its cut content, I decided to contribute.


A Farewell to Jef Raskin – This is something I wrote in remembrance of the death of Jef Raskin, commonly credited as the inventor of the Macintosh computer, in February 2005. Jef was a professor of mine in graduate school and later became my employer.

Plundered Hearts review – During the spring of 2004, I played through a slew of old Infocom interactive fiction titles and wrote reviews for three of them. The other two were for Planetfall and Wishbringer.

Food Force reviewFood Force was a ridiculous little edutainment game that the UN World Food Programme released in the spring of 2005. Having a particular interest in the oft-neglected genres of video gaming–especially edutainment–I decided to review this title.

Façade progressive review, prologue – This is the beginning of my first progressive review for The Game Chair, of the interactive drama Façade. Also see parts one and two.