Tag Archives: open-source

Diaspora: open-source distributed Facebook equivalent

I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before (as it’s an idea I predicted in rudimentary form for an article in Focus back in 2007, and I’m hardly at the cutting edge of web software thinking), but the Facebook privacy backlash has prompted a small gang of geeks to build an open-source distributed social network platform that gives you back full control over your personal data [via MetaFilter].

Diaspora is intended to be installed on a webserver, with every installation serving as a node in a peer-to-peer network – a complete reversal of the centralised model that Facebook and similar systems currently work on. Most of the current objections I’m seeing hinge on the fact that the majority of SocNet users don’t yet have their own server and domain name, and aren’t technologically able to maintain one themselves: the former is a matter of cost, and the price of webhosting is falling constantly; the latter is a matter of demand, and the turnkey installation scripts for software like WordPress which are available from many bargain basement hosting outfits suggests that, if the demand increases, the barriers to entry will lower rapidly.

That said, not everyone cares about their privacy online. Whether that matters or not is a debate for another time, but while the situation persists, the free-to-use no-technological-hassle SocNets will always have the upper hand in the casual user sphere. If Diaspora is to succeed, it’ll have to demonstrate tangible advantages over the competition in addition to the more abstract USP plus-points of enhanced privacy.

Fingers crossed… although, as science fiction fans, I think we should all get behind a piece of software that shares a name with a Greg Egan novel. 😉

The CSI Effect

Via BoingBoing, The Economist investigates the “CSI Effect” – the phenomenon whereby facts, falsehoods and mythinformation about criminal forensics procedures in entertainment media is hampering (and sometimes aiding) the detection and prosecution of real criminals.

… a new phrase has entered the criminological lexicon: the “CSI effect” after shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”. In 2008 Monica Robbers, an American criminologist, defined it as “the phenomenon in which jurors hold unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence and investigation techniques, and have an increased interest in the discipline of forensic science.”


The most obvious symptom of the CSI effect is that jurors think they have a thorough understanding of science they have seen presented on television, when they do not. Mr Durnal cites one case of jurors in a murder trial who, having noticed that a bloody coat introduced as evidence had not been tested for DNA, brought this fact to the judge’s attention. Since the defendant had admitted being present at the murder scene, such tests would have thrown no light on the identity of the true culprit. The judge observed that, thanks to television, jurors knew what DNA tests could do, but not when it was appropriate to use them.

This sort of informational feedback loop happens in all sorts of places. I’m immediately reminded of the most common denigration of open-source software, namely that because anyone can download the code, anyone can work out how to compromise it. Of course, very few people do so… and proprietary software certainly isn’t immne from hacking, despite its closed nature. But is that because there’s less profit to be made from hacking Linux systems, as Microsoft advocates often suggest? Given the number of servers that run on *nix, I can’t believe it’s as clear-cut as all that.

But back to the forensics issue: the ‘open code’ of forensic science is helping some of the smarter criminals cover their tracks:

Criminals watch television too, and there is evidence they are also changing their behaviour. Most of the techniques used in crime shows are, after all, at least grounded in truth. Bleach, which destroys DNA, is now more likely to be used by murderers to cover their tracks. The wearing of gloves is more common, as is the taping shut—rather than the DNA-laden licking—of envelopes. Investigators comb crime scenes ever more finely for new kinds of evidence, which is creating problems with the tracking and storage of evidence, so that even as the criminals leave fewer traces of themselves behind, a backlog of cold-case evidence is building up.

Is there anything to be gained from trying to stem the flow of forensics knowledge out into the wider world? And if there is, how would one go about enforcing it?

Resilience economics – Jamais Cascio’s 2020 vision

skyscraper construction siteJamais Cascio has been doing what futurists do best – speculating on the near-term changes that need to be made to haul our asses out of the economic hole they’re in and, hopefully, ensure we don’t end up stuck there again.

Of course, the web is full of people doing the same thing, making pretty much every website (this one included, to be fair) a shower of competing ideas and ideologies (of varying degrees of sanity). What’s interesting – and perhaps more reasonable – about Cascio’s approach is that he isn’t adhering to either of the standard polar opposites of socialism and capitalism; he’s attempting to synthesise the two in this report from an imaginary future a few decades away:

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.


Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

Some food for thought there, no? It’s informed by the networked and distributed technologies which surround us, but lacks the idealistic tang of utopian thinking… and compromise seems like a good idea from where I’m sitting, at least.

And while we’re talking about major upheavals to the way we do stuff nowadays, how about open source healthcare?

… in healthcare, state intervention artificially skews the model of service toward the most expensive kind of treatment. For example, the patent system encourages an R&D effort focused mainly on tweaking existing drugs just enough to claim that they’re “new,” and justify getting a new patent on them (the so-called “me too” drugs). Most medical research is carried out in prestigious med schools, clinics and research hospitals whose boards of directors are also senior managers or directors of drug companies. And the average GP’s knowledge of new drugs comes from the Pfizer or Merck rep who drops by now and then.


In an open-source healthcare system, someone might go to vocational school for accreditation as the equivalent of a Chinese “barefoot doctor.” He could set fractures and deal with other basic traumas, and diagnose the more obvious infectious diseases. He might listen to your cough, do a sputum culture and maybe a chest x-ray, and give you a round of zithro for your pneumonia. But you can’t purchase such services by themselves without paying the full cost of a college and med school education plus residency.

That’s a bit more extreme (or at least more detailed and close-focussed) than Cascio’s vision, but they both depend on a degree of decentralisation, with local systems picking up the slack where national institutions have failed. Given the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population, maybe devolving some governmental systems to independent local nodes would provide the flexibility we need to deal with these times of rapid change. [image by mugley]

Peer-to-peer open-source hardware funding

electronic hardwareIn a moment of pure blogging synchronicity – right after a commenter dismissed the story about Detroit artists buying cheap houses as irrelevant, using the phrase “[c]all me when it is a commune of semiconductor engineers” – here’s a story about open-source hardware engineers getting together and forming a communal bank to provide start-up loans:

… open source hardware requires more financial investment than open source software. It isn’t as easy as downloading a few open source programs on to your existing computer, explains Stack. “With open source hardware you don’t get a finished product until you have put in some money,” he says. For instance, there’s the cost of the printed circuit boards, the solder and the components.

“To build open source software you just need to set up a project on Sourceforge,” says Huynh. “But if you get open source hardware wrong, it burns a hole in the wallet.”

The Open Source Hardware Bank, which isn’t yet fully up and running as a federally regulated lending institution, allows those interested in open source hardware to make investments in specific projects, then (hopefully) reap returns ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent from the successful sale of the projects. For the creators, the bank offers funding that could bring down the costs of their project and give them the stimulus to try out new ideas.

So, a miniature investment banking system based around a community with common interests; financial mobility and specialist knowledge are the main differences from more traditional models.

“Groups of people that have strong shared interest are really the perfect place for peer-to-peer financing to work,” says Scott Pitts, former managing director of Zopa U.S. “As a group they are not out to make a billion dollars, they just want to fund their passion and do it in a sustainable way.”

Only time will tell whether it will stay the course, naturally (and they may not be working on VLSI chip fabrication) but there’s your proof that it’s not just “hippies” and drop-outs who are trying to extricate themselves from the old systems. [via BoingBoing; image by jpokele]