Two tech followups: Real Alternative, HerdictWeb (updated)

Working through the lists of things I've meant to get to for a while:

1) Last month I mentioned a BBC interview with my friend Liam Casey, "Mr China" from Shenzhen, which unfortunately could be heard only with Real Player. That is unfortunate because the installation routine for Real Player is so aggressive that it can easily load your computer with ads and all kinds of other junk you don't want.

Many people wrote in to ask why I wasn't instead using Real Alternative, a free browser plug-in that plays files that have standard Real Audio formats. (.ra, .rpm, and others -- details and download links here). The reason I wasn't using it is that I didn't know about it. Now I use it and like it. According to the site-meter, Real Alternative has been downloaded more than 21 million times, so if there were some major problem we presumably would have heard. I'm sorry that Real Player has become so obnoxious to use, but this is a great... alternative. Another download site here.

2) Two months ago, I suddenly found that I couldn't reach the main New York Times web site from my apartment in Beijing. Was it some problem with my computer or router? With the ever-shaky local ISP? Some transitory problem in Beijing? With the Times site itself? Part of the genius of Chinese internet control, as I have pointed out countless times starting with this article, is its haziness. You don't run into notices saying "The site has been censored." Connections just time out, and you're never sure why.

In that case, I asked readers in mainland China if they too were having trouble getting to the NYT. Enough people wrote in from enough corners of the country to suggest it was affecting people from Xinjiang to Guangdong (like "from Seattle to Miami") all at the same time. A few days later, the problem cleared up everywhere in China all at once.

Now a group from Harvard's Berkman Center has put together an ingenious and systematic way to collect real-time info on where and how web sites are being blocked around the world. The tool is called HerdictWeb, an (unattractive-sounding, IMHO) compound of "Herd" and "Verdict." Via a main web site or a browser plug-in, it allows users around the world to send in quick, easy reports of any web site they can't reach. Then, if it works as planned, it will agglomerate those into a "crowdsourced" dashboard of web accessibility worldwide. Here's how the (groan) "herdometer" looks now:


The site has gone up only recently and few people are using it. As far as I can tell, no one but only one person other than me has yet weighed in from China. (Hint: I'm not the one reporting the blockage of But if it becomes popular and can handle large-scale traffic, this could be interesting and useful.

UPDATE: I finally realized why the name "Herdict" bothers me. Two reasons. First, no one really likes to be thought of as part of a "herd." A crowd, maybe (as in "crowdsourcing.") Even a throng or a mob. But a herd? Second, the logo for the site includes pictures of sheep but none of cows. Cows make a herd; a group of sheep is a flock. FWIW.