Thursday, March 28, 2013

Historical Precedent: Mobile Computing & Our Unease?

Location: In front of a large screen

image credit: U Penn Library Exhibit, "John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer"

It's a common complaint that any mention of virtual worlds has ebbed in the popular media, and one reason given has often been the shift to mobile devices and tiny screens. Certainly that describes my students' preferences for online devices: about 90% of the e-mail I get from students comes from their phones.

I have met stiff resistance from colleagues wedded to desktop and laptop computers when suggesting that we need to make mobile computing the focus for our efforts with virtual worlds and more. For some historical precedent about this, consider an argument put forward by John Markoff in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.  In this, Markoff clearly realizes, as Tim Wu did a few years later in The Master Switch, that some technologies overturn entire industries and ways of communicating:
Indeed, the hallmark of each generation of computing has been that its practitioners have resisted each subsequent shift in technology. Mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, PDAs--at the outset of each innovation, the old guard has fought a pitched battle against the upstarts, only to give in to the brutal realities of cost and performance.
As Moore's Law makes our hand-held devices more powerful, I suspect this will happen again. For the latest shift, it will mean that something the size of a smart phone will be our primary computing device on the go or, when attached to  virtual keyboards and easily accessed monitors, nearly everywhere else. Here's a picture from the year 2023:

You enter your office and look at something like a large-screen television hung on the wall above the desk. You speak a login keyword. The phone, linked to the global data-cloud, remains in your pocket as you begin to work, using gestures in the air while in range of the television's scanner.  Windows for e-mail, a spreadsheet, and a calendar appear and you move them around with your hands while you issue voice commands. To input text you simply speak, and the voice-recognition software in the phone translates this to text. You finish just before a face-to-face meeting with colleagues, and walk down the hall. In the conference room, there's another big television, and with voice alone, you begin to talk. The notes taken in your office appear on the wall.

I will be a very late-comer to mobile computing, when I get a smart phone this fall. I don't fancy my iPad all that much, finding it must useful for quick browsing to, say, check the weather or read an e-book.  That may well change. For the longest time, Markoff notes, printing was one of the biggest hurdles for personal computing. When these puzzles get solved, such as providing big screens and input devices for mobile computing carried in a pocket, progress happens rapidly.

In a world with haptic and voice interfaces, as well as a robust data-cloud, we should get ready to say farewell to both desktop and laptop in fewer years than we might imagine. Then, imagine the students' gesture of neurotically clutching their smart phones to see as antique as clutching a magical talisman.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Linden Discount: 7 Desires by Educators

Location: VWER meeting

Last Thursday, VWER covered the contentious topic. On Friday, I reached out to the Linden, Zeeshan Linden, whose name appeared on the invitation letters received by several at the meeting. To date I've not gotten a reply.

So here is the list we generated:
  1. Make an official statement.
  2. Define what an “educational or nonprofit sim” means.
  3. State who is covered: Existing owners or those like my school who left?
  4. Clarify length of required contract.
  5. Permit those returning from an OpenSim grid a one-time OAR import to SL.
  6. Designate an official LL contact for educators and non-profits.
  7. Waive set-up fee for those educational and non-profits who have left SL and return.
The full transcript of our meeting discussion, running many pages, can be found here.

My campus did not receive the offer, and our former island manager is not planning to ask. He notes that we are unlikely to have any budget or support available, even at the old rate.  Faculty are simply not using virtual worlds at my school, and my own work with classes will probably end this semester. I'm on tap to teach a different range of classes for the next few years, with topics that do not lend themselves to using SL or OpenSim grids.

That is not the case at other schools with active programs, so Linden Lab should say something officially, and soon. Their delay and arbitrary offers only deepen the suspicion of those who continue to pay tier for educational and nonprofit sims in SL.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jessica Lyon of Firestorm Discusses Changes to Viewer Software

Location: VWER Meeting

Just over 40 educators and guests at VWER listened to Jessica Lyon discuss upcoming changes that all third-party viewers must make to work with server-side baking and other innovations that Linden Lab will soon roll out.

How soon? No idea, but "soon," as Jessica herself does not know. I'd say "not a moment too soon," as we soon crashed the simulator where the meeting occurred. After a restart, ten of the group never returned.

Thus the current state of SL. If the coming changes mean less lag and more stability, so be it.

The complete transcript of Jessica's Q&A can be found here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Dream of Reason (Again) in OpenSim

Location: Virtual House of Usher

With some instructions from Jokay, I was able to configure the Firestorm OpenSim viewer to log right into the build of Nevermore, transported (far as I can tell) seamless from hosting by Reaction Grid to Jokay's new host.

The transition was really smooth, though Roderick rezzed as Ruth (quickly fixed).  I've now saved his usual outfit as an outfit, replete with skin, shape, hair, AO...something I've long done with Iggy in Second Life but just forgot in OpenSim.

My plan would be to use Jokay's grid as my Lifeboat in case the looming changes in the SL viewer render our campus desktop Macs and PCs unable to run their latest client.

Stay tuned for more about the plant to use SL, one final time, for what may be my last hurrah in virtual-worlds teaching: my final exam suing the SL build of the House of Usher simulation/improv for the History of Cyberspace course.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Iraqi Game of Risk, 10 Years On

Location: Salad Bar, 10 Years On

I will never forget the argument beside the salad bar.

A conservative co-worker in our Physical Plant on campus knew I opposed Bush's war of choice, and he confronted me as I got my lettuce. Students, largely disengaged then as now from geopolitics, looked on at the two old people fighting in public.

"It's going to happen! We clean out the nest!" He said, emphatically.

"Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan, not Iraq, and that brute Saddam did not attack us on 9/11." I try to reason.

"You don't get it! This will be easy! We will turn the tanks right when we are done, and get Iran fixed too." He was gloating, and the students, the age of those who'd be dying in Bush's Middle Eastern game of Risk, were rolling their eyes.

"It won't be so easy; Iraq is a modern invention, a bunch of ethnic groups crammed together by the old Colonial powers. They'll turn on each other as soon as the brute at the top gets two in the hat."

"You are just spouting the typical liberal line." He was done. So was I. I reached for the dressing.

Ten  years ago, it was still the Freedom-Fries Era, of  salad-bar "Old Europe" vs. red-meat "Real Americans."

I was getting a salad, then wrote letters and op-ed columns. He got a burger and put a flag decal on his huge pickup truck.

What does it matter that I was right in the end? It was not a Risk game, and 4,500 dead Americans and God knows how many dead Iraqis later, that nation is a powder-keg. If it does not explode again, it will be the will of the Iraqi people and the resilience of their democracy, purchased with so much blood, that see it through.

Bush went back to his ranch and oblivion. We have that consolation at least about a man who set America firmly on a long-term decline with two wars paid for on debt, tax-cuts in the midst of those expensive conflicts, and exhortations not to sacrifice but to go shopping in defense of what he called a "sacred lifestyle."

Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their minions who massaged lies into a war did not see prison.

Afghanistan remains a missed opportunity, after an ADHD President and his war-criminal Svengali of a Vice President decided a bigger opportunity loomed. Then a clownish and finally, small man put on his flight suit to declare not just "mission accomplished" but, essentially, "game over, baby."

Except that it's not, and our tanks have come home. Yet the game goes on. Memories of tortured prisoners, religious civil war, and dead civilians will linger in Iraq.

My adversary over the celery stalks just says hello now. That was my last conversation with him and I don't need to rub my correct assessment in.

How's that for some shock and awe?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Sweet Smell of Desperation

Location: Looking at barrel and refusing to be bent over it again

As Linden Lab gradually loses landmass in its virtual world, as shown so graphically in Tyche Shepherd's Grid Survey data, the Lab turns again to a dog it kicked repeatedly in 2010: educators. Hamlet Au broke the story that the Lab is "quietly" reaching out to selected schools and nonprofits who lost their 50% discount on the Lab's exorbitant tier rates: come back, and you will get the discount again. According the Hamlet, the discount works as "a full private island for $1,770 per year, or $3,540 for two years."

 "Please, oh please," Linden Lab might have added. Here's why educators should reply with a firm "no thanks."
  • Fairness to All Customers: Why should some educators get this discount, and not others? While vendors in education do offer volume discounts, it is unclear if the new educational offer applies to potentially large estates: a cap-and-gown version of the Lab's Atlas Program.

    I'd prefer across-the-board cuts for all customers, something the Lab apparently cannot do.
  • Focus on Entertainment, Not Business or Education: I've long felt we made a mistake in thinking that SL would be amendable to education. We educators thought of Linden Lab as just another software vendor.

    When the educational discounts had existed in an earlier era of Second Life, the preferential treatment made sense, as educators were then a sort of "halo" customer for a product the purportedly would be a "disruptive" technology intent on changing the world.

    Today, the Rosedale/Burning Man dream is long gone. SL, under CEO Mark Kingdon, tried to enter the enterprise market and failed, even as the Lab's educational team was fired and the discount for educational and non-profit customers ended. I'd hoped that Rod Humble, with his impressive Electronics-Arts pedigree, would at least restore some sense to an unsustainable revenue model based upon extracting tier payments from a declining user base.

    Instead, since his coming the Lab has clearly been milking SL, not even featuring it as one of four "shared creative spaces" on the Lab's page that points to potential investors and employees. Meanwhile, SL has chased the social-gamer market, with advertisements looking more and more like IMVU's. Marketing counts here. One look at the Lab's images for "what is Second Life" show beautiful people often in romantic embraces.

    I really like this whimsical and sexy image by Strawberry Singh that the Lindens use as the default on their site's home page, but it would elicit laughs in the classroom and worse in the IT conference rooms where purchasing decisions get made. It illustrates how far the Linden Lab strategy has shifted, and I don't think a granting agency or IT department would look at today's SL and say "here is your $150 per month, prof. Go play with Victoria's Secret pixies."
  • A Company and Platform Out of Touch With How Millennials Communicate: I polled my current section of 16 first-year students. Not one brought a desktop computer to campus, and only three own one at their home.

    My residential campus is not typical today, with full-time undergraduate students who don't commute. That said, many of my current students are also computer-science majors. They use mobile technology for everything: laptops for making content and phones plus, increasingly, tablets for communication. SL does not play well on many laptops with wireless and not at all on phones and tablets, barring a third-party viewing with limited functionality. The platform is wedded to the desktop computer that remains popular with the sorts of users who can swap out a video card on a weekend. Students can't do that with laptops, and our labs, where desktops remain available, are not set up for that sort of on-the-fly upgrades.
  • No Sense of the Academic Year: Like the sucker-punch of 2010 this current offer comes, once again, in the midst of the US academic and fiscal year. Budgeting decisions are tricky to time but don't get made, short term, in March or October. The Lab needed to give educators more warning time in each case.

  • Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: Why should we trust these guys? Here I will turn to a few educators who responded to Hamlet's post. I called the treatment of educators a "buggering" and a wag named A.J. summed up the Linden offer as "Come back. Join our dying world again." Ken Hudson, whose Border-Crossing project had attracted such acclaim before moving his work to Unity 3D, and, notably, still gets promoted on the official Linden Lab wiki, noted that "I love that LL believes we all forgot how they dicked us around. We didn't."
We've not forgotten, Linden Lab, the whip-sawing policies that marked the 2010 buggering. Many of us have moved on, and it's likely my last-ever semester using virtual worlds for a class project.

So, no thank you and thanks for all the prims.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Linden Lab's Project Shining and Educators

Location: Valley of Disillusionment

Of the many vexations with Linden Lab, no other exceeds my anger at their inability to understand how the US academic calendar works.

In October 2010, they threw us all for a loop when they decided to jack up tier for educators in the midst of our fiscal year. At the time, educators reacted with confusion, shock, and finally, justifiable anger. Since then, even SL stalwarts have noted the decline in educators using Second Life with their classes, as evidenced by the dwindling of college & university sims, posts to the SLED list, and lower participation in meetings such as our VWER group.

Now, with the mix of classes I teach, as well as research interests, shifting,  I prepare for what is likely my last-ever use of a virtual world in the classroom. I've planned a suitable finale at the Virtual House of Usher, but then I read the Firestorm Viewer blog, noting an easily overlooked Linden Lab announcement from June 2012 about "Project Shining."

On the surface, the switch to "server-side baking" will reduce one of SL's vexing problems of avatars not rendering properly. That's of interest to every category of user. For the technical details well explained, I point readers to Inara Pey's post on this topic.

Yet once again, the Lab prepares a massive change to its viewer software without considering what educational institutions might do mid-term in a semester. Project Shining will apparently roll out this month, just in time for my students' final examinations involving Usher.  For some schools, it will mean more and finding a Plan B viewer that works on a few computers: lab software often gets changed over summer and winter breaks. This is one reason my school, even during SL's honeymoon era when our IT staff had avatars, never installed any viewer on our lab images.

Now these folks, like many IT staff nationally, have forgotten their SL flirtations and have focused on the new (and more promising) shiny object, mobile devices.  No way I could get an SL-based project on their radar.

Yet thanks to the good will of Evelyn McElhinney of Glasgow Caledonian University, Usher returned to Second Life, with the structure of the House built at Jokaydia Grid and many props added from SL builders such as Morris Mertel and Trident. I've been shopping for a combat system too, all of which would support the hard-working, long-suffering content creators of the virtual world. They are probably the only group to suffer more than educators from Linden changes. Every time a server-code update breaks a script, it means more work for them.

The last time Usher ran for my class, I used my Jokaydia Grid's build, soon to be packed up as a final OAR as I end my work in OpenSim as well. Jokay's grid has moved to OSgrid and I've not yet logged on to check if my Plan B works. Expect an update here, and soon.

Thus I'm not sure we'll use Second Life for the exam. Expect an update on my decision after Jessica Lyon of Firestorm meets with VWER members later today, to talk about what her team is doing to be ready for the big update.