Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jeff Young Meets the Educators: The Transcript

Conversation after Phobos session
Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

Photo courtesy of Sheila Webber

I promised our participants that I'd not edit out anything said by them.

So here is the complete transcript (it ran 29 pages of single-spaced type in Word).

The event grew heated, and at least one participant had enough and simply left. We had, at one point, at least 82 participants at Montclair's amphitheater.

Young's telling remark to this reader: that he was inspired to return to SL to have a look after coming across a widely maligned (and frankly, uninformed) piece about SL in The Guardian.

I'm pleased to say that Mr. Young ran a much humbler, and more informed, post in the Chronicle after our meeting. He focused on what the new SL 2.0 viewer may mean for educators.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

CNN Provides Heritage Key with Good Press

Location: CNN Web Site

I'm really pleased, after the lackluster article in The Chronicle, to see CNN cover, from a "noob perspective," the promises of virtual-world technology. You can see a nicely done video, aimed at the general viewer.

Funny how the announcer notes that Second Life is a "game" but implies Heritage Key is not. That's some of the best backhanded marketing I've seen. Administrators resisting the perceived sex and griefing of SL--a view The Chronicle piece encourages--might say "well, maybe there is a use for this technology on campus."

Soon I plan to look at more strong developments in Heritage Key's Valley of the Kings.

Jeff Young in the Lion's Den

Audience view, Dav Phobos session

Location: Virtual Worlds Roundtable

Photo by Sheila Webber

Mr. Young is a brave man. His recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education caused such a ruckus among educators that we expected griefing when he appeared at our weekly event. I was on security with several others for meeting Moderator AJ Brooks.

The only grief was verbal, and it was hot and heavy. Primarily, educators objected to these aspects of Young's coverage:
  • He did not have enough in-world experience to adequately cover Second Life and OpenSim worlds
  • He failed to visit some of the richest educational content
  • He wrote a piece that seemed slanted to editorializing about SL, rather than probing some of the strongest problems--and promises--for early adopters
  • He over-emphasized sex and griefing, aspects of SL that have not posed large problems for most of the VWER members.
I've probably missed a few of Young's and our group's main points, but I will post a link in a future post here to the entire conversation. Readers take note that the flames are plentiful in our talk. Kudos to Mr. Young; he says he'll return to SL again to visit classes and attend an upcoming conference. I'm glad he will do so.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More on the Reaction Grid Visit

Snapshot _ Devonshire, Devonshire (8, 204, 23)

Location: Back in Second Life

But how often? The visit to Reaction Grid by the VWER group revealed many things about the world and the developers' plan for groups (from an unnamed "partner"), the number of prims available for those leasing a region (large), and other interesting details to be found in this full transcript.

Bad hair or not, Iggy Strangeland will keep looking around this new world.

Photo Credit: Thoth Janzen, posted by Olivia Hotshot

Kunstlerism of the Week: Doofus Smack Down

I bow before your snark, Mr. Kunstler. Virtual worlds never looked so good. I'm just going to stop calling these re-posts "Reality Checks" because that should be self-evident by now, even in the land of Doofus Americanus.

Read the rest at "Rehearsals for a Civil War":
The Tea Party appeals to the swelling numbers of the new former middle class angry at the sudden vanishing of their accustomed perqs and entitlements to a predictably comfortable suburban existence. They're mad at the government and hot for "liberty." But how do they propose to maintain the hyper-complexities of suburban life without taxes to pay for fixing the countless roads their lives depend on or to run the gold-plated central school districts that seem to exist solely to provide Friday night football? As for liberty, a handful of despotic corporations from McDonalds to WalMart have been granted the liberty to destroy the Tea-bagger's bodies and the economic fabric of their communities -- and they seem to want more of that kind of liberty, based on the recent decision of a "conservative" majority on the Supreme Court allowing corporations to buy elections. The Tea-baggers also apparently crave the liberty to push other people around, especially on questions of abortion and religion. That's an interesting kind of freedom.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Unsolicited Advice: Social Media in Virtual Worlds

Bubbles or Avatars?
Location: Talkin' to The Man

There's been a good discussion of integrating social media richly into Second Life, as Linden Lab uses Avatars United, recently acquired from Enemy Unknown AB (read Tateru Nino's account of this purchase).

Many SLers have been saying "meh" about integrating social networking and Second Life. It took me a while to see a reason for it, but I came up with one: the 25-group limit.

I understand the role that groups play--a key one--in enabling access to items and land in-world. As (I believe) Pathfinder Linden explained to us at a Roundtable meeting, every time an avatar crosses into a new parcel the server checks access rights and more. Having, say, 100 groups would create terrible lag. But a social network outside the Lindens' asset server would not induce any lag at all.

Imagine checking group notices, updates, and more on a prim-based terminal inside SL. What if I could log in with my avatar's virtual laptop to get landmarks and other information handed out not from an in-world group, but posted to Avatars United? Any Hippo Technologies Vendor can do this already.

What if..if..the assets handed out by the social network site could be used in any compatible virtual world?

Whoever figures out how to do this will deserve a great deal of credit, and will have a lot of money in the real-life bank.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reaction Grid Meeting Goes Well for VWER group

RG_VWER Meeting_002
Location: Late to the Party

Today a group of educators met in Reaction Grid, the second outing beyond Second Life for the Virtual Worlds Roundtable. I was teaching a class, so Iggy Strangeland logged in after the meeting ended. Without a landmark, I still found the crowd easily: they were the big cluster of dots on the Reaction Grid map.

Several regulars at our weekly meetings were around, as well as GeoFrank from NASA. Many of the new Reaction Grid folks had customized their avatars very effectively; if only I could figure out where Olivia Hotshot got her blue skin--nicely done and right out of Cameron's Avatar.

What impressed me about the gathering was its size: although regions in Reaction Grid can only support a dozen avatars, give or take, as many as 27 avatars were present, by meeting in an area that bordered two regions. The Reaction Grid team was on hand to build a "chat bridge" between the two areas.

I've not had time to even look at the chat transcript that reached me after the event. I'm quite impressed, however, that so many of us could make it in-world, not crash, and not worry too much about our hair.

My only glitch was a freeze that led me to relog after I teleported to the meeting site.

We walked around afterward to see GeoFrank's rocket-garden, Viv Trafalgar's land with its amazing giant flowers, and Olivia's meeting area itself. As a DIY sort of fellow, I like Reaction Grid's start-up feeling. The rough patches will smooth out in time, as I've seen in Heritage Key since last fall.

Frank's Rocket Garden

This was truly an historic day for the Reaction Grid and its team.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Blast at the Chronicle's Second Life Coverage

Angry Iggy

Location: Mixing a Drink (of water--Mama taught me no Martinis when you are pissed off)

Marty Keltz of The Virtual Worlds Story Project poked me with a stick today, when I was already testy. He let me loose on "After Frustrations in Second Life, Colleges Look to New Virtual Worlds" in the usually well informed Chronicle of Higher Education.

So visit the story and watch the fur fly. Marty, if we meet in NYC or Richmond and you are drinking man, the famously secret great Martinis at Thai Diner II are on me. If you are not a drinking drive us home. And his partner in TVWSP, Jenaia Morane, gets her drinks on me, too, for her riposte, "Ignorance Abounds."

Here's my reply to Mr. Young:

The author does a disservice to those of us who have worked hard building immersive simulations in Second Life. That said, I'm not a fanboy of Linden Lab (though I have taught four classes using their world and in networked classrooms since the early 90s). It takes time to teach well in SL, and it's advisable to spend at least a semester studying the world before bringing students in.

So I want to note, first, where Mr. Young gets it right.

First, the author understands the power of simulations, which is the most compelling application for virtual-world technology.

Bravo. Young's also correct in stating that educators "need more control than Second Life gives them." Much of the blame for that rests with the company, not the world itself.

Here Mr. Young misses a really key part of this story.

Too often since the short-lived "media hype" era for SL ended in 2007, Linden Lab has taken its education customers for granted. Examples abound. They don't understand that many first-year students outside the US are 17, not the minimum of 18 needed to create an account. While ramping up system-requiremnents to look more like higher-end games, the company doesn't consider the systems that students will use to connect to SL. Doing so on a typical student laptop via wireless can spell disaster. They have not provided educators with ways to back up our simualtions on local equipment, except for a laughably expensive "enterprise solution" or third-party clients of limited utility.

With OpenSim worlds, for all their warts, a school can host its own virtual world and control its own IP.

Mr. Young could have written a far stronger indictment of this particular virtual world's shortcomings, however, had he not shown his lack of skill in SL and, say, taken a look at the fine (and not so rosy) study of experienced users just released by the New Media Consortium:

It's painful when a reporter shows his "noob" status. He states--and this had me alternately laughing and groaning--that "I regularly get stuck between pieces of virtual furniture, wander around aimlessly looking for the person I'm trying to meet up with, or lose patience as I wait for my online avatar to walk between virtual classrooms."

That, Mr. Young, is your fault, not SL's. I learned such basics within my first semester with SL. My students last term had those "level one" skills down in...two weeks.

There are many reasons to doubt that virtual worlds will soon attract a large number of faculty. But The Chronicle should have sent someone "in-world" who at least possessed enough skills to avoid his own bias about using the interface. I'm not angling for that job...I'm too ticked by Linden Lab. But at least, as I teach my writing students immediately, one begins analysis by noting one's biases and lack of expertise.

BTW, "RIP Second Life" is, as we'd say "in world" a lame link to have.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Some Thoughts About "Mainstream" Faculty and Virtual Worlds

Double-Decker Roundtable
Location: New Media Consortium Web Site

Hamlet Au recently posted some interesting statistics from Alan Levine and the folks at New Media Consortium. The findings show a prevalence of educators in Second Life, with only a scattered few in other virtual worlds. The study also reveals how hard it may be to get more faculty to join us.

Why Aren't More of Us In-World?

I know that on my campus, I'm one of three faculty who have taught with SL. A fourth made it an optional part of the class. And only one of us is using SL this term (for a single assignment).

I have hundreds of colleagues. Almost all of them use Blackboard. Several dozen use wikis and blogs. Granted, only a handful use GIS data or similar applications. In those cases, however, the application is essential to a colleague's research agenda.

Why no more of us in SL? Let's dig into some of the NMC findings with a graphic that Au did not reproduce. This graph charts answers to the question "What is the number one barrier to broader adoption of virtual worlds by your institution?"

I'm taken by the 91 respondents, 33% of total, who responded that the "learning curve" for virtual worlds is the number one hindrance.

After 3 years in SL, the clunky user interface seems easy enough to me, but I still am a dolt about scripting, the deeper aspects of the "advanced" menu, and more. And, to be honest, I have no intention of learning them. There's not enough reward, professionally, for my taking the time to learn them, and my personal time is too precious to spend on that.

None of the respondents in the NMC survey noted specifically that a lack of incentives and rewards blocks wider implementation, but I suspect that lay behind a number of the "other" (18%) responses. On my campus, I get as much credit, in my annual review, for the 20 hours or so needed to design a new course over the summer or the 30 or so I spent last year on curriculum review as I do for the 400+ hours a year I spend in SL or writing about it. My time included going to meetings like our weekly Roundtable, exploring the metaverse, building an educational simulation, teaching with SL, and blogging about it.

Sure, SL is a lot of fun. But 400 hours? Time is not infinite, and I'm planning to spend less time now in SL and even blogging, after my "personal audit."

How many scholarly articles have I not written in the past three years because of that missing time? At least two, beyond the one I have written about my work in SL. Even for those of us who do not have tenure, publication is the currency of Academia if one wishes to change jobs.

So please don't be cranky at me if I refuse to join you in the latest social-networking application, virtual world, etc. I'm going to spend my "SL time" reviewing articles for a forthcoming anthology on virtual worlds. My evaluators will understand that and reward me.

Perhaps--I have mislaid the reference to an article on the topic--this is why schools without so much publish-or-perish pressures, even on non-tenured faculty, and with a strong teaching mission have fared better in virtual worlds than have the Ivies.

Schools without such pressure to look good in national ranking have the luxury to try these worlds out. Monetary costs (only cited by 6% of respondents) are, unlike temporal ones, low in virtual worlds.

But, Wait. Other Tools Take Time to Learn, Too!

Mastering SL is more akin to designing Web pages than learning to use them well. The only reason SL was fairly simple for me is that I used it to play, too, my first year (and still do, a little). Most of my peers do not, and as Dan Holt and I have both discovered, a semester of learning would be wise before bringing in a class. I'd claim that several are needed before a faculty member can begin to design anything beyond rudimentary content.

First, other classroom tools with more shallow learning curves, such as wikis, blogs, micro-blogging, photo-sharing, and the like contribute mightily to student multimedia work. And in many cases, support and discussion of them is as close as my office hallway or the library. For many applications, students know already how to use them. When I mentioned that I could join my current course virtually next month during a conference, every student in class had a Skype account and knowledge of the application.

For virtual worlds, I must rely upon my online community for discussion and advice. The folks I collaborate with know a lot, except for one thing: the culture of my school. Moreover, the serendipity of a chat over coffee still works better for me and many of my colleagues.

Second, SL sometimes seems less like a tool to make a project (especially for non-builders!) than a subject for good work, as in my students race-and-gender-switch assignment in SL or the "Saving Isis" project in Heritage Key.

But I could, in my field, just as readily study race-and-gender biases online with the flat Web. It might not be so intriguing or immersive, but it would far, far easier.

So, Why No Broader Use of Other Virtual Worlds?

In Academia we have broadly available ways to connect to our peers in specialized fields: e-lists, academic conferences, journals. All build community, and in the galaxy of virtual worlds, only SL offers that, so far, though Reaction Grid seems to be gaining traction.

Beyond community, there's the utility of features in SL that simply work better than in any competitor's world (and across platforms). For all its warts, SL features working groups, maps, consistent teleports, prim-items that work consistently, and (perhaps most importantly) premade content for sale or even for free.

My ability to quickly purchase a Mystitool table-and-chair system at a Roundtable meeting, using the Xstreetsl portal, let the meeting go on. I suppose in another virtual world I could have made a bunch of plywood cubes to sit on, or our avatars could have just stood up. Either would "break the metaphor" that makes the world immersive and, in various ways, would not have lead to a smooth meeting of 40 people in the same way as a very impressive scripted table and chairs did.

So designers, take heart! Given the lack of time and rewards that educators face, most of us will never become fluent builders and we'll need such good work by others. One can still lead productive classes in SL without making a single cube, but to do that locales for study and inventory become essential. Even freebie items let me class change race and gender well enough to study those aspects of identity.

For now, we educators remain a small part of virtual worlds. Until the software gets more intuitive, we'll remain a small group. And until other virtual worlds offer SL's community, we'll mostly be using the Linden product.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Reality Check: Kunstlerism of the Week

hummer parody
Location: Clusterfuck Nation Blog

Jim's at it again, in some dizzying verbal pyrotechnics about the Greek economic crisis that has piled up worries larger than the Gyros in my favorite sandwich shop:
Europe is a sad case, really poignant, because it became such a darn nice corner of the world after the convulsions of the mid 20th century. Who, for instance, can spend two weeks walking the lovely ancient streets of Bruges or Orvieto, or Lisbon and not fall to their knees in overwhelming despair on return to the slum of Kennedy Airport? Europe rebuilt itself so beautifully after the war while America became a utopia of overfed clowns riding in clown cars around the plasticized cartoon outskirts of our ruined cities. Europe had wonderful public transit while America let its railroads rot away. European men went about their business in grown-up clothing while Americans men dressed like five-year-olds and got flames tattooed on their necks as though contemplating a barbarian invasion of Akron, Ohio.
As a Europhile who has often called Americans some variation of "blind, fat white people, racing toward the edge of an abyss in their SUVs," I agree. Should add "while chatting on their cell phones and watching action flicks on the car entertainment system."

Jim's only overstatements are as follows: 1) I happen to live in a nice, slowly reviving city, only hampered by a clownish city government and 2) Jim needs to go back to look at younger European men's clothing. Fashion crime has arrived, in the "I wear sports attire but don't play" variety we see in America, too, and baggy "doofus drawers" that threaten to fall down as soon as the cops begin foot pursuit of a thug.

That the Euro-zone is not immune to the stupidity and greed that led big finance to wreck the world economy, remains a profound disappointment to me. Maybe there exists no paradise beyond the warmth of family and friends in close community, the very localism that Kunstler champions and that will be the likely result of life after oil begins its terminal decline.

And for a while (here's the virtual world reference) we'll build fake paradises of code and pixels. Good luck with all that and may your power stay on.

Read the rest of "Euroland, The Horror Movie" here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Setting up Shop in Reaction Grid

Location: subQuark Blog

image from the site

You are looking at a Reaction Grid build that subQuark discusses in the post "Moving from Second Life to OpenSim." With Ener Hax, subQuark was part of a large investment of time, energy, and cash in Linden Lab's metaverse.

Now they have emigrated, shuttering their 19 sims in Second life. Educators considering a similar move should have a look at subQuark's reasoning, including a not-so-subtle jab (and an accurate one, in my experience) at Linden Lab's management style.

I have recently said hard, but accurate, things about Reaction Grid's performance, but the fact remains: it's a viable alternative to SL, if rough around the edges.

Keep in mind that subQuark and Ener are experts using, I presume, systems faster than God's. Their work will bear watching as more content developers make their move to diversify their work, or just leave SL completely.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thinking about Aesthetics in SL

Location: Blind

"My God, I'm blind."

Have you ever said that when you looked upon really poor taste? Taste so bad that it's good?

I won't reveal the identity of the happy avatar couple or where I found this photo.

I'm glad they are happy. Maybe I'm just a grumpy professor and Spring still seems far away.

But why? Why?

"Why not?" is not an acceptable answer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

February Road Trip: Campion Road Rally

Location: Highest Point on the SL Mainland

After struggling mightily with Reaction Grid, it was almost a pleasure to log on to Second Life again. Say what one will about dodgy sim-crossings, lag, and clunky graphics, SL's mainland gives me a sense of place that I've yet to acquire in a competitor's world.

I began my exursion in Tuliptree sim, with an eye on a very nicely done headquarters of the Virtual Railway Consortium. I noted that the rez point allowed one not only to move a locomotive along the tracks but also to rez other vehicles for Route 1, one of the Lindens public-works projects. Studying the maps at the railroad station, I noted an obvious goal: Campion sim, with the highest point on SL's mainland.
Starting out

Yes. I had to go there.

Route 1 carried me first past Calleta, with its famous Hobo encampment. Here there were enough green dots present to encourage me to throttle the bike down and talk. I met two new SLers; the man shown here was still in his stock hair and clothing, so I handed out some landmarks from my class. The woman had already acquired the generically sexy "skirt like a belt" SL look, including obligatory 1970s porn-star shades. She wanted to sit on the back of the bike.
Calleta Residents

I rolled on, apologizing for the lack of a passenger seat. The lonely road does not brook company, especially with chatty porn-stars.

North of Calleta the land became a little less crammed with juxtaposed styles. Perhaps that's a happy result of so many residents moving from the mainland to private islands or the adult-rated continent. I started seeing some nicely rendered builds and areas that, aesthetically, followed common rules of decoration. One leafy stretch of highway was particularly moody...the type of road I'd seek if I were on a gas-powered trip. And, gasp, I found road-signs pointing me to certain sims ahead. Those signs are a first. It seems that the Lindens did go ahead with planned infrastructure improvements.

Even with such help, Campion's high point was not easy to reach. Route 1 runs to the south and there are no connecting roads, so I decided to gun the bike off-road. I did not get pictures of my epic, Kineval-besting ride.

I almost made it, riding vertically up the mountain that loomed ahead. But even in SL gravity counts for something. I flew off the mountain twice, once flying so far on the bike that I crossed into another sim. While airborne, I could still turn and control the bike, but I was determined not to activate its flying controls: dammit, I was going to RIDE to the top.

Then, on my third trip off-road and straight up, at a sim-crossing I wrecked, with the bike crossing into a banned area and me landing, in a heap, on the other side of the line (and in a different sim, in fact).

I took the bike back into inventory and walked uphill. Soon I had to fly. The high point measured just over 400 meters, and of course it was privately owned. Lacking ban-lines, I could land and IM the owner of a castle for a noteworthy quotation. I wanted to know how it feels to own that land, to have only skyboxes further up. This is, after all, where the land ends.

And what does one do in SL from a high point?
Why not?

Well, jump of course. And of course the trip ended with the sort of circularity I love in my vacations: I was back at a northern hub of the Second Life Railway.

By far, this was my best road-trip ever.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reaction Grid Update: Growing Pains?

Technical "Difficulty"
Location: Out (usually) and About (sometimes) on Reaction Grid

Where I've recently found improvements in Rezzable's Heritage Key experience, I am still withholding judgment on Reaction Grid (henceforth RG). Using both Hippo Technologies' as well as Imprudence's Mac clients for virtual worlds, I've spent a few hours struggling with tasks that I mastered three years ago in Second Life. Despite clearing my two RG avatars' caches, getting on the fastest connection available to me, and proceeding carefully, the situation has not been promising.

Perhaps the grid is growing faster than patches and support. I am not technical enough to know.

I'd high hopes for this Second Life competitor, based upon my first visits last year, especially to the 1939 World's Fair simulation. Prices are far lower than in SL to own land, and jokay Wollengong maintains a sizable operation in RG. Many educators went to RG to purchase land following her move, in part a way to express anger at Linden Lab's treatment of jokay and her work, in part to avoid having all eggs in one virtual basket. Some talented builders like Ener Hax have moved out of SL completely. Like Rezzable, Hax finds costs lower outside SL. Unlike Rezzable, however, other immigrants do not own our own servers or have a team of coders to tackle a problem.

Perhaps my subpar experiences come from being a Mac user on a grid now run on Microsoft servers--though I'm sure that was the case last year. But that's "how I roll": no Mac client, no visits by me to the grid or attention in my academic work. To its designers' credit, RG does offer a Linux client as well as, of course, one for Windows.

My problems could have come from the number of items and scripts running in the Sandbox region, but the simulator crashed repeatedly with only me present. Other regions worked somewhat better, but tasks were still painful. Setting up a free animation override to have a better walking animation took over an hour with a few relogs--I'd accomplish that in 2 minutes in Second Life.

A simple teleport to the Houston region left Iggy Strangeland--my primary avatar--wearing only a scalp-lock for hair. Then he folded up like an accordion and crashed. Both he and my secondary avatar--Zome Orlan--tried making top hats. Just about the time the hats fit, they made the avatars skin and clothing layers disappear.

I was the invisible man with hair and shoes. When the hat came off the avatar reappeared, though attaching or detaching prim items in RG frequently made me crash.

I eventually gave up on the hat and tried some hair from the inventory. Teleports resulted in random changes of hair to styles I'd worn earlier, or baldness. These glitches point to the world's database not keeping up with my choices. At least my pair of sunglasses worked out. I left a free pair on the nose of a sculpted goat at Sandbox Island. Good luck, builders, I thought. Here are some shades to hide your tears of frustration.

At least uploads are still free, because I'd have been really angry paying for my experiences in RG thus far. I thought of buying some land in RG near my friends Olivia an Viv and setting up a version of Richmond's House of Usher simulation. Now I'm going to explore more before putting down a credit card. If stability does not improve, I'm going to pass on investing.

And this week, the Virtual Worlds Roundtable makes a grid-visit to RG. That should prove interesting. I'll post a report here. (Update for Feb. 8: the VWER visit has been postponed for at least a week).

Now for a slideshow of my misadventures in RG. Let me know if you have better luck over there.
<a href="">Koinup</a>

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Dan Holt's Advice for First-Time SL Teachers

Profdan 1/2
Location: My SL Office

I recently sat down with Dan Holt (Sl: Profdan Netizen) of Lansing Community College to discuss his first term of teaching writing with SL (Fall 2009).

Dan's an experience teacher for both creative writing & composition (academic writing--a better name--for my U.K. readers).

We had a wide-ranging discussion and I learned a great deal; Dan avoided some of the errors I made my first term, in 2007, in a similar course! Notably, he spent time in-world before bringing in a class of students.

Here are some notable points from the transcript of the interview:
  • Work with students throughout the orientation and first hours
  • Educate yourself and administrators before going in-world with students
  • Anticipate resistance from administrators who think online courses should be primarily asynchronous
  • Find a key ally (as I did at Richmond)
  • Exploit SL's low overhead costs. These make it attractive for hybrid and online courses at community colleges
  • Address concerns about SL's content and "addiction." First to Dan (and me), fears bout SL are no different from concerns about the Web in the 90s. Second, showing off good educational uses and content of the world can convince some doubters
  • Find colleagues. Dan has had a little more success than I have recruiting other faculty. I attribute this to the different environments: Richmond's publish-or-perish pressure can be a disincentive for tenure-stream faculty to experiment with technologies
  • Measure your class against others not using SL. Dan's students did a little better in a comparative assessment.
I look forward to talking to other teachers about their first semesters in SL. The complete transcript of Dan's and my chat can be found here .

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Philip Rosedale's AI Project: Academic Musings

Location: Between Fear and Wonder
image from Collosus, The Forbin Project

I've always feared The Singularity, a.k.a. "The Rapture of the Nerds," when human consciousness could finally merge with that of a machine...the final upload, if you will. I fear it because of my ecological bent and training in speculative literature. We humans worry about AIs replacing us, but what of the creatures who have known this planet for millions of years? To AIs, would biology become merely raw material? To badly appropriate Philip K. Dick, "do algorithms dream of Shenandoah National Park?"

Such questions may seem alarmist, for my humanist readers who are not in Second Life or reading literary Science Fiction (shame on you), but The Singularity is not new or confined to the pages of paperbacks. The Singularity has been the dream of Ray Kurzweil and others like him for some time. I'm met a number of SLers who would gladly become their avatars, 24/7, even at the current cartoon level of embodiment.

I'd go so far to say that Science Fiction remains our most important genre of literature because, as Bruce Sterling put it in the late 80s, our age is the first to feel like SF. My students, when they hear about Kurzweil's and the Transhumanists' strange dream, mock it because--for now--they are young, trim, have perfect teeth, and use their parents' insurance policies. Yet their generation may be the one to build a working AI, as soon as their hair falls out and wrinkles crack over their skin like ice-feathers on a farm pond.

Now Philip Rosedale, a golden youth who resembles the suburban American Alphas I teach, and the utopian who founded Linden Lab to give us Second Life, wants to come at The Singularity from another direction. According to Hamlet Au's account, "a sentient artificial intelligence which existed in a virtual world" would complete one of Rosedale's ongoing projects, "The Brain. Can 10,000 computers become a person?" See Rosedale's company site, Lovemachine, for more.

I'm actually glad that Rosedale is after this goal, since I imagine that governments lacking his humanitarian streak can lay their hands on 10,000 linked computers and a number of good coders without much forethought. It would just be just another line in some intelligence agency's "black" budget, right after "new stealth first-strike bomber" and "high-res spy sats." I'd rather have Rosedale, with his world-changing goals and good intentions, build the first AI.

Or would I? Rosedale's site includes this mission statement:"LoveMachine is a team of people using disruptive technologies to very rapidly build things that can make money and have a shot at saving the world." Note the "very rapidly" and "shot" here. Unlike Einstein's God, Rosedale seems willing to play dice with the universe. What if The Brain does something different? Isn't that how Skynet emerged in the Terminator films? How the Matrix became self-aware? How Collossus, the prototype for all of these technologies (well, perhaps Forster's "Machine" takes first credit) was born? Well meaning people can still wreck civilization; even without thinking machines, each of us pushes civilization closer to the brink daily with each gallon of gas or pound of coal we burn (and America consumes at least 20 million barrels of oil a day).

Yet someone is going to try to build AIs, and many smart people have already been at it for some time in places like M.I.T. I lack the computer-science skills to begin a technical critique of a "virtual AI" made of 10,000 linked computers, so I'll move ahead to what such a creation might mean, were Rosedale to make The Brain.

The original idea of an "avatar" in C.S. circles was a program that would do things when its owner was otherwise occupied. An AI might be able to not only let me know when Dominion Power's bill has appeared in my online banking account but also advise me of ways to manage power-consumption in my house by roaming its power grid, using sensors to check where, for instance, I missed insulating a corner in our crawl-space last year. Then it could go shop for the best products to fill those gaps, while getting quotes on energy-efficient windows to replace our 60+ year-old panes. Iggy would log on to SL and have a chat with my AI about how to move forward. Through Iggy, I might authorize it to negotiate with window-makers and get quotes on the best products. It would search out some eco-friendly insulation of the sort that I could not find last year. My e-mails to suppliers never got returned, and I went on to other matters, buying fiberglass bats at Home Depot. The AI, not needing to sleep and unable--one hopes--to be bored, could keep at the customer-service desks--or AIs--until answers arrived. Meanwhile, I'd send the AI an order to dispatch nanobots under our house to kill the last Camel-back crickets that have been such a nuisance and have evaded my sticky-traps and chemical bombings. The nanobots would not kill any spiders, since we enjoy their hard work at killing other bugs.

Even my students get a little more excited when you talk about AIs in these terms. We allow other machines, and the hum of constant networked contact, to fill our hours so completely that we lack time to do what I've just described. AIs would take the tedium out of a networked existence as surely as the washing machine took the tedium from what was once called laundry day.

And if only it would stop there. As Ruth Schwartz Cowan so convincingly argued in her book More Work for Mother, the advent of labor-saving household devices had a side effect of ramping up expectations that we'd all complete more tasks in our drudgery-free time. Cell phones unite, but they also enable tiny women in giant GMC Suburbans to be distracted while driving, even as they convey to planned activities the toddlers in the back of the rolling fortresses.

I'm not confident that the time released by our AIs would make us a whit more leisurely or happy. Well, I take that back: they would if we made the machines serve us fully and fought like demons for any free time. I've done this with Internet technologies, taming my habits online and on the phone. I actually get some solitude most days and can enjoy the wonders of the natural world.

And that makes me a Postmodern freak in an ever-connected, scurrying world. I'm not sure AIs won't become just another, particularly powerful, example of Emerson's "things," that hop into "the saddle, and ride mankind."

I just hope Philip puts a kill-code into The Brain, so a human can always turn it off.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reality Check: Kunstlerism of the Week

Location: James Howard Kunstler's Blog

I'm fond of Jim's turns of phrase, and I read his blog, "Clusterfuck Nation," every Monday as soon as I can.

Since he writes too about invented worlds--the American delusion that oil is infinite and suburbia is sustainable--I find a clear connection to the forever-young, forever-awake world of Second Life. Reality is, of course, a little harsher than SL, as Kunstler reminds us this week:

Do you really think that more suburban sprawl makes this a better nation? When our soldiers bleed out in the sands of Central Asia, will their last thoughts be of the curb cut between the Best Buy and the Burger King?

Read Jim's "Jive Economy" (seems that the Lindens DO copy reality in this, too) for more insights by one of our most acidic, and overlooked, social critics.

Maybe I'm just grumpy because my local bus-line reduced service and my employer must provide shuttle service to co-workers who might otherwise lose their jobs, even as many of the students on campus are so affluent that they'd never be seen dead on a public bus.

Even among my well educated colleagues, too few of us leave our cars parked and commute by bike or foot. Too few shop from local merchants, not on suburban strips that will become unworkable and boarded-up shells, with cheap oil's demise.

When that occurs, or when China stops subsidizing US debt, "Too Big to Fail" may become "Too Broke to Not Fail." Then, perhaps, we'll see how invented "reality" has been in our Strange Land.