Sunday, May 31, 2009

When the Machine Stops...

Location: Garden

It was a perfect Richmond weekend: warm and not humid. We even had rain, during the night. Nothing will be this perfect again until Fall, when a different sort of beauty--that of what is soon to pass--appears before our eyes. I did a bit of gardening and, today, built a stretch of fence.

The hot months ahead may be a good time to park oneself in front of a keyboard and monitor, but I'm going to resist temptation. Lately, when I log on to Second Life I notice the same folks online. Every time I log in, they are there. Metaplace is too new for this, for now. Give it time.

What would these folks do if Linden Lab closed its doors? If you are one of these always-online folk, be it in SL, Facebook, Twitter, or somewhere else, consider some lines from E.M. Forster's magnificent, and terrifying, story "The Machine Stops" (the image is from the 1965 TV version). Read the rest of the story (or listen to it at
  • There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.
  • By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter - one book. This was the Book of the Machine.
  • People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.
  • By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed.
  • Those who still wanted to know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look into some cinematophote.
  • But there came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.
It felt good to use my muscles today, to move wood and soil and tend thing that, later this summer, will be part of our meals.

I invite you to consider how you spend your fleeting time in the world of matter. Enjoy your summer.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

VCOMM Update: Looking Good

VCOMM: Flood
Location: Hellbilly Home Place

I successfully uploaded a presentation to the VCOMM site, a Powerpoint slide-show of Richmond's devastating 2004 flood, when the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston dumped 11 inches of rain on us in 5 hours.

I needed to check the "persistence" of an upload, since my last one vanished after I had uploaded it and logged off. I wanted to see how a future visitor might interact with the presenter when I was offline. For testing it under rough conditions, I called in Alphaville Herald journalist Pappy Enoch, who can break machinery by looking hard at it.

Only one issue--and it's not VCOMM's--troubles me. The transmitter controls a media stream, so the land on which it is placed must either belong to the owner of the transmitter OR it must be deeded to a group. That is a limitation that Linden Lab could change and it would help faculty who work on campus property they don't own.

I plan to test other tools soon, but it's impressive that VCOMM's system permits PPT slide-shows and Quicktime movies to be uploaded. As soon as land-rights are settled on Richmond Island, I'll either give Kevin a transmitter or set one up myself, then install several panels to run media.

Pappy's technical report follows:

That thar mersheen am working fine. I dun looked at the 2004 Richmond flood pix...still am rite sorry about yo' friend Sam's car, even if he did have to hole up in the topless club when the water rose...but that am another story :)

Tell Volker that Swiss Engineerin' am top notch, almost as good as Hillbilly work! Y'all come on by the Homeplace and see the pics Iggy dun stuck up. Then yu will know why Richmond ain't safe when the high-water comes--head for Enoch Holler an' the mountuns!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lindens to Ban Camping Chairs

Old Times at HippiePay
Location: Hunting Lucky-Chairs (soon, anyhow)

Linden Lab has announced that they will ban camping devices that encourage avatars to stay in place in order to collect Linden Dollars. It's a long time since I kicked up my heels at HippiePay with their manager, Twyla Tomorrow.

I've used Iggy or an alt to camp from time to time, because 1) I'm a cheapskate who cannot pass up the opportunity for a few cents and 2) If a merchant wishes to pay me, I'm glad to help out.

Camping was already on the decline before the company policy, "clarified" by Jack Linden, did nothing but stir up anger from bot-haters and campers alike. The big-camping venues like HippiePay vanished long ago. With the end of the old "Popular Places" rubrics in the SL client, it was only a matter of time. Now that traffic ratings are being gamed with camping, Linden Lab decided to clamp down again.

This hurts businesses, when a simpler--and easier to enforce--solution would be to recode the Linden Lab traffic ratings so unique visits (by IP address) or some other metric would have solved the problem.

Now small shops will have a hard time, given the utterly terrible search engine in SL, getting customers to their doors. Linden Lab needs word-string, Boolean, and other features common to other search engines, or even the site they run. I don't know enough about traffic ratings to consider how lucky-chairs, trivia contests, or other games might lure enough visitors to increase a site's traffic rating.

It simply gets under my skin that the Lab can tell property owners--especially those with islands--what they can or cannot do with the avatars who come to their location. After all, the Lab does not crack down when sims get full for other reasons.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May Road-Trip: Performance Lag vs. Good Pix

mayroadtrip: Hitting the Road ...
Location: Mowry Sim

I am finding that my "old" laptop is lagging more and more. On this trip (on the bike--the car is a prim-hog) that meant that I'd either get good shots or ride: doing both was difficult. I stopped for snaps, then moved the graphics sliders down before roaring off again.

Lag or not, I love this idea of a monthly trip on SL's roads. Sitings:

  • a wistful-looking couple on a bench, in a playground, watching a bunch of bugs and animals on springs, the sorts of rides you see for children in real life. But there were no children and the animals moved slightly of their own accord. This scene struck me as almost tearful, something right out of P. D. James' amazing novel The Children of Men. I rode on.
  • an unpleasant surprise. I could not resist, and I came back to discover that the "playground" was not so innocent or sad. The animals had little sex-balls embedded. It's in the open, so I guess it will vanish with the new adult-zoning restrictions.
mayroadtrip: Creepy playground...
  • only a few billboards, and they are smaller than those from the old days. I hate billboards so this change is fine with me.
  • odd physics. I kept my cruising speed under 50 kph and looked around when I could. At sim-lines I found that creeping up was a bad idea. I'd "bounce back" as if the bike had struck a giant and invisible marshmallow. Blasting across the lines worked better as long as the bike was not going too fast. Then things got non-linear, fast.
  • my horn. It plays "Dixie." I'll tell Pappy Enoch.
  • a sim simply refused to load, even though it was a valid location on my map.
mayroadtrip: End of the road.....
I got this effect of "the end of the road."

I'll be back in June with another road-trip! I put a few more shots on my Koinup account. Have a look and...happy motoring!

mayroadtrip: Sign says it all

Monday, May 18, 2009

VCOMM Presenter: Beta Test for Second Life Educators

Location: Hellbilly Home Place

Today I was able to test a new presentation tool developed by Eric Gaibov, a Swiss SLer.

VCOMM's presenter permits the uploading and display of Powerpoint slide-shows, Quicktime movies, and PDFs so they can be shown in Second Life.

Testing the VCOMM Presenter

I've been considering a presentation tool for Richmond Island, as soon as we resolve deeding rights for a showcase-building of student projects. One must own the property (or it must be deeded to a group) to place the transmitter part of the VCOMM unit. That done, the presentation panel can be taken elsewhere to use. The limit on the transmitter is not VCOMM's doing; it comes from rights over media-streaming on a parcel (only owners can do that).

Since I own a small piece of land where Pappy Enoch and his virtual hillbilly family dwell, I used it for my testing, and Pappy was quick to help me warn off meddlers.

Look out!

VCOMM's latest version is smooth and polished, and the upload of a large PPT file went without a hitch. I plan to try next with a short .mov file, so I can test audio.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

To-Do List: When Admins Fret about SL

Location: Richmond Island

It's never happened to me on my campus, but I hear stories from elsewhere. "To protect our students," some institutions restrict use of SL or other work online. In some cases, students are not even authorized to leave campus sims!

It's ironic, and we really put the "loco" into "in loco parentis" with policies to protect young people who are old enough to die in combat (yet not drink, legally, in the States). Faculty and I.T. folks who teach or work with SL, if you ever get any pushback because of adult content or violence in SL, try these approaches:

1) Remind them of the new Linden Lab policies regarding adult zoning and age verification.
2) Show class policies, release forms, and other documentation to prove that you do not authorize students to do anything non-academic for class. As I once told a student who wanted to become an exotic dancer, "that's not part of my class. What you do in your own time is your business."
3) If they agree, develop with your inquisitors and the campus legal people appropriate release forms and waivers for students to sign.
4) Show your inquisitors Tutankhamen's tomb, The International Spaceflight Museum, or Genome Island.

Nuclear Options:

5) Take a look at the films showing in your student commons. If the "Hostel" or "Saw" series have been on the schedule, let your inquisitors know, then ask if seeing graphic tortures, rendered with photo-realism, is worse than a glimpse of full-frontal pixelated nudity or video-game-style splatter.
6) Go over their heads to a senior administrator who actually knows something about life online and has been sympathetic in the past. Play the academic-freedom card and see if a bone-headed policy can be subverted or overturned.

You will likely make enemies with this last option. If so, especially if you are younger than your enemies, relish the notion that you'll work (maybe live) longer than they will. Virtual worlds and open-access online are bigger than any university. We'll win on this one, if we act responsibly.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blue Mars: The Wii of Virtual Worlds?

Location: Avatar Reality Web Site (images courtesy of the company)

The buzz about vaporware is becoming buzz about beta-testing. If your Windows Vista PC is ready, you will soon be able to try Blue Mars. Before I rant a bit about my dislike for any world that prohibits user-generated content, I must admit that Avatar Reality may end up with a hit.

After all, hardcore console gamers made fun of Sony's Wii at first.

It's not sexist (by a viewer) to point out that all of BM's preview images features modestly dressed female avatars. Maybe the boys designing the world prefer to look at babes as they alpha-test, but I think it more than that. Women have been in Second Life in large numbers (no one knows a precise percentage) and they may well be attracted to BM. This was Sony's premise, and men are using Wii as well; with an alpha-male in my family and a great-nephew I recently got top score on Rock Band with the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop."

Hey, ho! Let's go!

I've been rather savage to Blue Mars, since aside from my Mac zealotry, I learned that user-generated content by casual end-users would be prohibited. I'd even called BM "Blue Suburbia" on an e-list, after a designer of corporate simulations noted how consistent and business-friendly it would be for people who did not want to make anything. He even hearkened back to the "flying penis days" of SL, an era mostly gone.

I admit that the screen shots look appealing. But so does a theme-park.

Those with the skill to use 3D tools like Maya could make content:
Blue Mars client and interface is focused on enjoying the world through play and interaction, not content creation. Rather than force developers to learn new ways to create content through our own proprietary toolset, we support industry standard content creation tools like 3DSMax, Maya, and Flash.
Also from the company's FAQ:
Most city developers allow small vendors to set up shops in their city to sell virtual items. We will be announcing more details on this program in the coming months.
Here a line gets drawn: a virtual world that would make residents tourists by default, playing easy-to-use games and shopping shopping shopping for 3D pixelated versions of things they can no longer afford in our collapsed economy.

Keep in mind, however, that Wii thrived despite the need to purchase a dedicated console and not use the PC already on lots of desks. Nintendo marketed Wii to a demographic not already using a competitor's product. I suspect that the bad press about the wild sexuality in SL (rampant and overstated in too many tech journalist's pieces) is on the radar of corporate women: they'd be BM's first residents, then the boys would come over to socialize and try to act cool.

It would be a social-gamer's paradise, as the Sims has been. And it would bore me to tears with the nightclubs, the drama, the GOLF:

So yeah, I don't care for the idea of Blue Mars. If I cannot make stuff, even silly Lovecraftian books for Armada RP that whisper to me, I'm bored easily.

Unless I want really mindless and geeky fun. Then for Windows-based mayhem I'm betting on Stalin vs. Martians, more of my idea of a Monthy Pythonesque game that is easy to play.

T-34s and a five-story-tall, break-dancing Uncle Joe crush alien stooges to save Mother Russia in a dialectical materialist free-for-all! Go Stalin go! Shake that thing!

Forget the Red Planet. I'm going to play with the Red Army. Where's a PC? Gabba gabba hey!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Conundrum Over Graphics for Linden Labs

Location: Second Life Education Roundtable

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

I was so proud, as a faculty member, to have two of my students, DMZ and Socrates, join our weekly meeting as part of a student panel on SL. They really did a great job.

I'll run the entire transcript soon, but one point that Socrates raised is worth an entire post. He liked using SL in a class, and felt it helped his learning. Yet at the same time, he said this:
I do not see myself using Second Life after I graduate... but I do see myself using similar technology in the future. I am attracted to the concept of a virtual world with endless opportunities but the graphics are not strong enough to hold my interest for long.
For some time, I've argued that educators need stability more than fancy graphics. I'm not a gamer so SL's graphics are fine by me. Every time they get ramped up, it means ever-increasing requirements for graphics-cards and RAM on our systems. This orphans some students in the midst of a class and makes maintaining SL in a lab setting extremely difficult.

Socrates and other potential SLers, who are used to game-style graphics, want better graphics without lag to hold their interest.

How will Linden Lab satisfy both constituencies and grow its user base? On this question hinges a lot more than the fate of one virtual world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Inventing a World in the Real World: Peak Oil

Location: Scaling the Peak Web Site

I was pleased to come upon this blog after I met the author on campus. His approach is less snarky than that of Jim Kunstler, a long-time correspondent of mine whose writing I'd discovered shortly before he visited campus. I love Jim's wit and sense of outrage at the outsized lifestyle of US consumers.

For at least this one post, I thought I'd diverge from my musing about virtual worlds to mention Peak Oil and its likelihood, in a time when fuel prices have dropped and some Americans I hear are singing "Happy Days are Here Again" as if sustainability were some sort of 1990s option.

Peak Oil is a simple concept: at some point, the planet's entire supply of oil reaches a halfway point. Past that, try as we might, aggregate production falls and keeps falling. New supply does not offset losses of older wells. This happened in the US after 1970, using a model developed by the Geologist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s.

Hubbard predicted a global peak in the 80s, but finds in the North Sea offset that. Where are we now?

Close to Peak Oil for several reasons.

First, the economic downturn stymied new exploration and led to a slowdown in alternative-fuel projects. New discoveries are smaller and harder to develop. Major fields such as Mexico's Cantarell, the North-Sea wells and the Kuwaiti fields are declining. The biggest "elephant" field of them all, the Saudi Ghawar, is widely believed to have past its zenith because the Saudis are injecting it with seawater to keep its pressure up and the oil flowing.

As soon as global demand recovers, we are all in for a wild ride, because oil prices will skyrocket as production lags demand and reserves are tapped fast and hard.

What sort of world will we build, as the easy oil goes away?

Many books discuss it, but suffice to say two models stand out:

Power Down: A life lived more locally, more self-sufficiently, and with fewer luxuries and less driving. Sprawl in the US will shrink to local villages or become abandoned. Commerce will be local. How local and at what pace, no one knows. Here alternative fuels and carefully managed oil supplies permit a gradual scaling back of our habits. I'm using Richard Heinberg's term for this model; his book of the same name is a good read.

Long Emergency: Jim Kunstler's term. Here we end up fighting resource wars, facing chaos at home as overfed consumers elect what Kunstler likes to call "cornpone dictator." Globalism falls apart, and we all sink into, at best, a 19th century way of life for the foreseeable future.

Don't believe me and the authors cited? We might just be alarmists and easily dismissed, at least until one reads "Energy Trends and Implications for U.S. Army Installations," an innocuous- sounding 2005 report from the Army Corps of Engineers. It acknowledges the reality of Peak Oil and warns:
  • "World oil production is at or near its peak and current world demand exceeds the supply."
  • "Unless we dramatically change our consumption practices, the Earth’s finite resources of petroleum and natural gas will become depleted in this century."
  • "To guess where this is all going to take us is would be too speculative. Oil wars are certainly not out of the question."
I have heard--and not verified this--that the dearly departed Bush Administration was outraged by this report. They and their oil-baron friends didn't like that sort of news from anyone, especially from the military.

Memorial Day is coming and with it, the driving season. With that, gas prices are staying above $2.00 a gallon. Let's hope for Powering Down, with more walking, biking, hybrid, electric, and biofuel cars, and a renewed rail system run from power plants and not on imported diesel.

In either model, we'll have to invent a new way of life, and the re-building will be as strange to us all as anything from a virtual world. I'm not betting on any technological dei-ex-machina. I think we'll get along, more simply, with traditional ways of living and some--but not enough--new technologies. A lot more of us will work in agriculture.

As for our current level of supersized and suburbanized abundance? It's as much an hallucination as were the housing bubble and funny-money of leveraged debt.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

First Behind-the-Firewall College in Second Life

Location: Cleveland Plain Dealer Web Site

Just uncovered this (tip of the tophat to Alvin) news about Case Western Reserve University:

CWRU on Thursday announced that it is partnering with Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, to build a private virtual world, or "grid," just for the university.

I have been very excited at Linden Lab's plans for a "behind the firewall" solution for faculty who need stability and a secure haven for projects, hosted on local servers and connected to SL's main grid. For sensitive data in med school classes (a dental lab simulation is pictured above), hosting SL locally provides a perfect solution: the institution, not Linden Lab, is responsible for housing and protecting materials that may be covered by FERPA and other Federal laws.

As I read the account in the Plain Dealer, I became momentarily concerned. While CWRU is the "first university to get its own version of Second Life," would the university lock down student access to the larger grid beyond its walled garden?

It seems not. Read the entire account of how some teachers will use SL, and for many of them, I'm betting that the protected college space, supported by their own on-campus experts, will create an ideal learning environment. On campus, students need never worry about a griefer from the broader world of SL ( faculty can handle student griefers just fine). Off campus, the students will enter a larger and less controlled world, just as they do when they complete experiential-learning projects outside a campus' brick-and-mortar gates.

We'll see more campuses do what CWRU is doing, and soon, in SL and other virtual worlds.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Education and Browser-Based Worlds: Win-Win?

Graphical Question
Location: Metaplace Web Site

This will sound Pollyanna-ish to those who know me, but I feel strongly that browser-based worlds could, under certain circumstances, capture a lot of the education market from Second Life.

Here's why:
  • Graphics, graphics, graphics: Linden Lab adds features to the SL client that ramp up the system requirements and add lag. Colleges and universities do not upgrade labs as often as most digerati upgrade their systems, and most students here use laptops. For those reasons, any virtual world with even the versimilitude of SL in 2006 would be "good enough" for most of the builds I can contempate in education. As cool as the new King Tut simulation may be, it won't be of much use to many of us at schools that cannot run it.
  • No Orphans: Many schools have I.T. policies that permit frequent upgrades to lab-images. Richmond and many others do not: we manage system upgrades over the summer terms. That means we never install SL's client; my students must download it every time they want to use a public computer. Browser-based worlds will not face this hurdle.
  • Platform Neutrality: We have a great number of Macs, once again, on campus. While Linden Lab has been able to admirably support multiple platforms, some other VWs with clients are not even trying. Browser-based worlds work around this problem.
  • No "Gaming" Rules: Second Life is considered a game by far too many admins. Browser-based worlds fly under the radar, except at schools that restrict by URL (not many in my experience).
I suppose I've missed a few points, but as much as I enjoy SL, I think there are pronounced advantages to using something inside a broswer. It's not, to my mind, the kluge that many SL partisans claim.

Emote time

But I'm no digerati hipster or social gamer: I'm just an early-adopting faculty member. I just jump for joy (using Metaplace's emote tools) when something works well.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Correspondence The Old-Timey Way

Time to write
Location: Writing Desk

A funny characteristic of the Millennial students who attend Richmond is their preference for old-school communication, at least after graduation. I guess I'd expected them to invite me to some social networking site (a few have) but I get more letters than anything else.

A printed card or letter comes as a shock to faculty who still remember when this medium was the default choice for communicating between two people at great distances. For a student writer, the letter or card shows real seriousness, and a faculty member is more likely to remember the writer. This is no small thing when a graduate comes asking for a reference or letter of recommendation (usually done online, these days).

Today, as a break from grading final projects, I'm answering printed mail. That used to be a large part of the day for many people who kept up correspondence with others.

Since my stamps are SO old, I'm running out to get some one-cent ones to avoid the recipient finding a "postage due" announcement (if the post office still does that).

At times I miss letters. My handwriting is actually decent when I slow down and use my favorite pens. In the crush of answering e-mail, replying to blog-posts, and preparing for class, I do wonder what we've given up in the service of greater productivity.

But usually I'm too busy to think about that. If you'd like to send me a letter, just drop me an e-mail first. I'll clear the desk and pen a reply.

Friday, May 1, 2009

No Teen Grid Merger In Second Life & More Details on Adult Content

Location: Montclair State University's Virtual Campus

Photo Courtesy of Olivia Hotshot

Special thanks to AJ Brooks for convening this meeting and moderating what could have been a free-for-all and not a civil discussion.

What will the new adult-content policies mean for educators? The big news at the recent roundtable, led by special guests Claudia, George, and Pathfinder Linden, is that Linden Lab has no plans to merge the teen and adult grids. This has been a popular topic in the SL rumor-mill.

Of continuing concern to LL is how to address the needs of 17-year-old college students who must use SL in a class.

The Lindens spoke to a gathering of more than 75 educators (as well as Prospero and Nya Linden, who joined the party) and answered questions the audience had put to them in advance and on the spot. Here are some highlights from the transcript :
  • George Linden stated that there are around 2,000 islands in Second Life that have the educational discount.
  • All of the Lindens sought to clarify the term "mature" as compared to "adult," a key distinction that many are not making in blogs and forum-discussions.
  • Claudia Linden made it clear that Linden Lab has no plans for a "grid merge" at this time and that the Adult Content changes are a distinct intiative.
  • Claudia Linden acknowledged that Linden Lab is aware of the problems with accommodating mixed ages for high schools and universities (since some college students are younger than 18, and some high school students are over 17, the upper age limit for Teen Second Life). She stated that Linden Lab employees "have been attending a series of meetings with educators from around the world about this issue. She said (as transcribed) that the issues are "very complex problem & they are working hard to come up with solutions."
  • Prospero Linden noted that as of the time of this meeting, 5088 sims are zoned PG and 22401 sims are mature. 8 sims are adult zoned (test regions).
  • Pathfinder Linden reminded educators that pressure from the education market alone did not drive these changes. Linden Lab listened to many residents in crafting the new guidelines but the issue was larger, "part of any platform maturity cycle." He compared this to "Google, it didn't originally include safe search but that was incorporated in response to users."
  • Claudia Linden contended that filtering search results will be "a win for education."
  • She also clarified several points about appropriate use of adult-themed materials in a course that uses SL. In making decisions, "we may take into account whether apparent or reported adult content or conduct on a particular Region serves only an extremely limited or passive function, or an important educational or cultural function."
  • When the example of Michalangelo's David was put to the Lindens, they noted that this sort of artistic nudity would not have to be in an adult-zoned region.
  • Nya Linden explained that a verified Paypal account or a credit card would suffice for age verification, and she added "If you have a payment relationship with XStreet or LL, you are verified."
Want more detail? Links to resources from Linden Lab? Study the entire transcript. No voice recording is available, but see the entire transcript for links to MP3s of earlier voice discussions by the Lindens on this topic.