Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"...that the guns may fall silent..." - On the importance of virtual Truces, and real Change

The trenches are sifted with a layer of white snow, and more is falling. The lights in the medical center tents glow warmly, and a momentary quiet seems to drift down over our shoulders. Approaching the front line, the silence is broken here and there by the sound of distant singing, in German.

It is Christmas 1914 in the World War I poetry sim at Frideswide, and a few footballs litter the ground. The guns are silent. From before the holiday, and through 12th Night (January 6th), Csteph Submariner has effected a decided change in the look of the sim, to reflect the Christmas Truce of 1914. Visitors to the front line can hear Henry Williamson, a Private in the London Regiment, give his eyewitness account of the Truce.

I first visited Frideswide a few months ago (here's the original post) and walked the muddy, rat-ridden trenches. The impact of teaching a period of literature from within the environment where that literature was created, most particularly that of World War I, was what struck me at the time. As I revisit the region and note the visible changes, as well as those things that have remained the same, I am struck by another item: the impact change has on a simulation.

There has been much said about the impermanence of regions in Second Life, especially as much-loved places disappear for good. However, the flip side of that coin is the good that comes when things can and do change rapidly within virtual environments. Change can be used for powerful narrative effect over time, or to teach a different point about the same subject, within the "environment" of chronology. Change makes us pay attention; it makes us return and rethink. A beautiful sim that does not change is still beautiful, but a region that does change has extra power. The power comes from a deepening of information and experience created by the fact that Second Life and simulation platforms like it allow for new developments over time. Bravo to Csteph Submariner and the WWI Poetry Sim - I look forward to returning again and seeing what comes next.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Different Immersion: Old Hobbies

Location: Modeling Table

I spend less time in virtual worlds, now that my class that included Second Life has ended. And in that interim, old hobbies are quite literally coming out of the closet. I just don't feel up to doing a December road-trip in SL, because--to be honest--I'm a little bored with virtual worlds right now. I'll regain my explorer's spirit soon enough; this is actually a typical pattern for me, after spending enough time writing, gardening, or doing paper-and-pencil gaming.

I find, as I finish work on a 1/72 scale B-52D Stratofortress, that I regained the sort of "lost in time" immersion that good online engagement permits. I can labor at a model kit for hours, and the hours pass in the twinkling of an eye.

The same applies to my playing board games of the old "Conflict Simulation" sort popular in the 1970s. As I play the Avalon Hill classic Russian Campaign, I forget where I am as I push my Soviet Guards across the steppes to stem the invasion by Nazi Germany.

When the spring comes, the day will pass in the twinkling of an eye in my garden or doing some outdoor carpentry work.

I wonder if many of my most committed friends in virtual worlds are also hobbyists when away from the computer. Are non-hobbyists as likely to take up online worlds?

If you find yourself with any free time during the holidays, it's worth a thought.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do Clothes Make the Avatar?

Dont Ask Dont Tell
Location: Student Wikis

I've been wondering about the curious situation my students encountered this semester, especially those men who became females for a short time, as part of an assignment to change gender or race.

Only one female student became male. She felt that her positive reception as a dark-skinned man got influenced by a well made, non-stock suit I provided her avatar, and she focused on racial stereotypes in SL, not gender.

How much a role does clothing play in how we get treated? Another female student who dressed very provocatively, as a black woman, was hit upon constantly by male avatars.

What about the fellows who changed gender?

One student, who dressed fairly conservatively, had no offers a reasonable chat with a male avatar new to SL. The student felt that "this avatar just wanted to have conversation and didn't have any ulterior motives." Soon, however a flirtatious male came by, quickly noting his interest in dancing, "especially when he is with a girl and they are dancing 'slow and romantic.' " When my student didn't take that bait, the man stated that "he has a girlfriend in Second Life and that he didn't want to mislead me."

The irony makes me grin as I type these lines. Another male, pictured at the top of the post, went--with the chuckling assistance of a female classmate--for the naughty schoolgirl look so popular in Second Life. He had a very different series of encounters, but he too never got propositioned. In fact, several residents gave him advice about clubs to visit. His worst encounter involved being muted, when he tried to enter a conversation.

Not all students took the experience very seriously. One student made his female avatar a parody, with huge breasts and oddly fitting high-top sneakers. Some thought his avatar to be a griefer, and I enjoy this exchange:
My first attempt at conversation was. . . in a courtyard of the welcome area. I asked him what does he think avatars should look like. He said “not like you”. Then I asked well why not, and he responded with “I am uncharming and I should have a good life”, and with that being said, he casually walked away. As he walked away, I decided to make it seem as a soap opera by saying “don’t act like we had nothing, you were in love with me!”.
In love with getting away from a strange-looking and pushy avatar, surely.

We don't know in most cases who's behind an avatar. But at least we can counsel our students to dress their own avatars modestly. Beyond that advice, I have no clear answer for colleagues teaching with SL. As my Magic Eight Ball used to advise me "Reply hazy, try again." I hope that other faculty will study how clothing, in the same settings and on the same avatars, influences the reactions of others.

See you all in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Metaplace Virtual World to Close Jan. 1

Location: Metaplace

I'll post the following from Raph Koster, at Metaplace. I wish them well and look forward to their next venture. This appeared in the Metaplace forums just a little while ago. Thanks, Raph, for all the Meeps!

Over the last several years, we here at Metaplace Inc. have been working very hard to create an open platform allowing anyone to come to a website and create a virtual world of their own.

Unfortunately, over the last few months it has become apparent that Metaplace as a consumer UGC service is not gaining enough traction to be a viable product, requiring a strategic shift for our company.

We’re sorry to announce today that Metaplace.com will be closing to the public at 11:59pm on January 1st, 2010.

This is a bittersweet moment for us. Metaplace Inc the company will be continuing on – in fact, we have big plans – but what you the users have known as Metaplace will be going away. We are also losing some friends and colleagues here as part of this strategic shift.

We’d rather dwell on the good than the sad. You, the users, have done amazing work here, and we want to celebrate it. We may not have managed to reach our goals with Metaplace.com and Metaplace Central, but we still had a lot of fun, watched creativity flower, visited amazing places, and made a lot of friends. We’ve had amazing guest speakers, more parties than we can count, live concerts, movie premieres and art shows; we’ve seen you make adventures and schools and churches and games and countless other sorts of worlds that would otherwise never have been created.

In that spirit, we want to treat these next two weeks more as a celebration of the good times. We invite you all to come back to see all of the amazing worlds that you have made. Registration will remain open, so you can show off to your friends. Remote embeds will remain active until the last day as well.

We’ll be turning off billing immediately, and refunding everyone for all purchases in the month of December as well as subscription payments that apply to December and future months. This month is on us. We are suspending regular customer service, but the support site will remain open for now in case there are any critical billing issues.

We know many of you have done work here that you would like to preserve. Please do use this time to capture screenshots, data, scripts, movies, and assets. We have a FAQ that explains how to retrieve assets from the service.

When other worlds have reached a sunset point, people have lost touch with each other. We’ve made a lot of friends here and we’re sure that you have too, so we don’t want that to happen. We have created a forum site at http://www.metaplaceveterans.com that will be operational soon, so that you can all keep in touch with one another.

Finally: we want to treat the 1st of January as a celebration, rather than a sad moment. Please join us on that day for a party, starting at noon Pacific time. If Metaplace.com has to go, we want to go out with style, with joy, and with the same sense of fun that we have always had. Let’s celebrate the journey, not the ending. There will be meeps – count on it.

We’re sure you have many questions about all of this – and there’s a detailed FAQ that we hope answers them. Click here to read it.

In the meantime, we want to thank you all for your support, your effort, your creativity, and your loyalty. We know that many of you will be disappointed by this outcome. We are too. We are embarking on a new and exciting direction, and it feels strange not to have you all along for the ride.

It has been a privilege to have had you here with us on this great adventure, and we hope that this community – this wonderful, engaged, passionate, friendly community – lives on and on.

We’ll miss you -- and we hope to see you again.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blue Mars & Second Life: SL a Better Deal for Educators

Location: Richmond Island

I've been reading Tateru Nino's post about "pioneer pricing" for Blue Mars users. For all its warts, Second Life offers a better virtual-world setup for most educators.

Having just finished our Usher beta-test, where ordinary users paired with experienced builders and scripters like Viv, and faculty members of intermediate skills, like me, I am not impressed with the potential for the new virtual world in education.

My Reasons: Based upon pricing Tateru provided for a 50-concurrent-user "city" in Blue Mars:
  • Though the purchase price of $750 is half SL's for an educational island, BM's monthly fee is twice SL's.
  • Smaller parcels on the SL Mainland, now that adult content has moved to Zindra, are far cheaper for small experiments and still permit content development.
  • Content in-world with SL can be made without high-end developer tools, even by students (albeit really dedicated ones with lots of SL experience).
  • SL is platform-agnostic and will run on most student laptops (poorly but it will run). Blue Mars requires high-end PC systems and won't run at all on Linux or the Mac OS.
Some programs at schools where one could assume students can use Autocad or Maya might be interested, if they have high-end Windows labs or requirements that students own those types of systems. And how large a market is that?

Update for Dec. 20: at Massively's discussion of Blue Mars, danielravennest added this:

Any 3D software that can output the COLLADA format can be used for Blue Mars creation, that includes 3dsMax, Maya, Blender, and Google Sketchup. The latter two are free. I have been using the city editor tool they give developers (also free) and it is no harder to use than building in Second Life, once you know what buttons to use.

Also note that all content creation and city setup are done offline, and that is free until you go live on their servers. It's even possible to log in in "Developer Mode" with other people, you just have to distribute your content manually rather than through their servers. That's how our "Sandbox City" project will work until we go live.

Another Caveat: the lowest-end pricing ($100 setup, $30 per month tier, forum-only support, and 5 concurrent users) would be very appealing for experimental projects, to see if one wanted to "ramp up" to a larger city while learning the skills required. We could have run the House of Usher under those circumstances. So I am looking forward to hearing how educators with the right skills and systems do in Blue Mars. The more competition the better for Linden Lab; it will help focus them in a way that owning the market never has done.

For now, despite all my grousing about Linden Lab, would I consider Blue Mars in education? Pass on that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Building a Literary Simulation: 10 Lessons

Cast and Crew
Location: Post-Mortem for "House of Usher" Beta Test By Viv Trafalgar and Iggy

Now that the students have finished the beta-test, we will spend the holiday break adding whatever changes can be accomplished quickly. A major re-do of the House will have to wait until summer 2010. So, what did we learn?
  1. Iggy: Plan, plan, and plan-- Starting in mid-summer, it took me approximately 200 hours to build the House, after the student builder had made the floor plan and several stunning bits like the crypt entrance and the banisters for a couple of two-story areas. Then I had to buy or make props, recruit actors (calling in many favors), and prepare clues and special effects.

  2. Viv: Structure is important -- . Role play is new to many, and an in-class RP can feel very risky to some. This is especially true when they are working with peers in a class environment, and also exploring a piece of literature to compliment their actions that may or may not be a new text. Providing as many structural elements as are appropriate to support the central goal will help you focus on the point, playing out the character roles within the simulation and supporting learning.

    Some structural elements to plan for early:
    • including a goal or task that will give new RPers a starting point
    • a map of the area, or a native guide (our Roderick offered students a 'tour of the house')
    • an orientation opportunity, and/or someone to help students get dressed & into character
    • bringing in experienced actors to take the more difficult roles, help guide the narrative, and solve any simulation or actor issues that may come up.

  3. Iggy: Either hire an experienced builder or learn to build before you begin -- This sounds intuitive, but in my case I thought my skills with linked prims and simple copy/paste/modify scripting would suffice. While Jordan Mhia, our student builder--with no SL experience prior to Usher--did admirable work, I'd have rather done more of it alongside Jordan earlier on or hired it out, where I lacked the skills. In either case, it really helps to have a skilled primary builder do most of the heavy-lifting. In the event, we all learned by doing. What transpired--a laggy, overprimmed build we are still reworking--hurt immersion that is the key to literary work, whether in a book or on a screen. If you have a knack for building, I'd still buy a lag meter, learn to use mega-prims, reduce the number of scripted objects, and hire a scripter to save time and anguish!

  4. Viv: Immersion -- Immersion deepens when the environment becomes a character in its own right. This means thinking about a lot of things - from creating a space that is low-lag so people can move through it comfortably, to making the space vivid, tactile, and interesting - with great texture work, scripted objects, motion, and lots of things to discover. Some of these immersive aids will end up impacting RP, (and that's a good thing!) so bear that in mind. A few items that help with immersion:
    • period clothing to help the group get into character (because what you see before you helps you feel more realistic) as well to help each player. The act of putting on a costume is an event distinctly attached to "changing" your character.
    • Props - leave interactive items out for the actors, as well as discovery items. Things that can be toyed with for effect (a rocking horse, a skeleton) are as additive to the experience as things that pass an item or clue to the narrative.
    • Ambient sound and motion - Sound and motion can do a lot to create a living space, instead of a diorama. That said, too much sound, or too many movements will distract and detract. This is a place for subtlety. And, of course, occasional spooky laughter if you're an Usherite.

    Library Ghost
  5. Iggy: Don't be a slave to the story-- We deviated greatly from Poe's deterministic universe with our "telling" of Usher, both in entertaining our guests and in crafting details. Starting with hints Poe left (mysterious servants, body-snatching doctor) we created rich subplots that we are still elaborating. Often the very props that Viv notes in #4 became key elements in subplots (a diary entry, a creepy poem left in the crypt, a bottle of laudanum). If we had focused too much time on making the House collapse, as it does at the end of Poe's tale, we'd have wasted time better employed making our retelling lively. One might later return to an idea that could not be completed; we may have the House burn, as it does in the 1960 film starring Vincent Price, instead of having it fall apart. Since damage was on for the simulation, the outcome could be just as deadly.

  6. Viv: Use your people - even when they're dead -- No one is going to be doing everything all the time in a good narrative, but if you have a character who has some downtime, give them objects they can move around or trigger to add to the ambiance. They can stay in place, but cam all over the environment, looking for people to spook (er, I mean Immerse) with objects they have permission to use. Also, for the 'lead actors' a collaborative back channel (when group chat is working) or a skype conversation (when it's not) is very helpful for pre-planning, coordinating during the event, and post-game wrap-ups.

  7. Iggy: Link tasks to tangibles -- This advice comes from an article I'm revising for publication. In the case of Usher, the writers had a final blog entry that counted for participation credit. It's sad to say that the college students I teach won't do an activity just for the fun of it. It must be connected to a class activity and, yes, graded. In our case, the Usher experience grew from their overall goal (Save the Ushers) and individual tasks (such as "Find out what you can about the family doctor"). In each case, the Ushers' guests were not simply tossed into the simulation without guidance. Viv gave me the idea for this, by the way. I'd been thinking broadly about how writing assignments in and about virtual worlds need to lead to something useful in the class and beyond it, as when writers' work becomes republished in a well known blog like New World Notes.

  8. Viv: Engage -- Ask, don't just answer. Don't give all the answers straight off! Interact with visitors as if you were the character, not as if you were a lesson about the character. Be as curious as they might be and sometimes parry questions with questions.

  9. Iggy: Improv-- A good literary build is not a museum, though we did intend for the House of Usher to be used, at times when actors are not available, as just that. When actors or visitors roleplay, however, why not be ready to "wing it" when visitors come up with a clever idea? Good gamemasters in old paper-and-pencil games like Dungeons & Dragons know how to improvise when players go "off script." That also saves a GM time, since s/he need not prepare so many notes but merely a general outline with several "what if" scenarios. One phenomenal moment of improv occurred when the actor playing Roderick confused an avatar named Jennings for Jenkins, a servant we invented for the retelling. Jennings IMed me about this, and I said "run with it. Be offended." I then IMed Roderick to say "Jennings is going to challenge you. Keep pretending he's your employee. You are mad, after all." The results were just what we wanted: a new plot direction emerging from an accident.

  10. Viv: Schedule, prepare, have backup plans, prepare some more -- Any live performance needs a good coordinator. A good coordinator is someone who can master (rapidly changing) schedules, make connections that get people where they need to be, and who has the phone numbers and emails of everyone else in the group. (Personally, I think Iggy is a genius at this - let me know if you want his contact info. {just kidding, Iggy.}) The coordinator and everyone else need to be comfortable with the fact that 'if you build it, they will come' is not always true - and that the opposite - no one showed up - isn't a reflection on your effort. Schedule participants for the performances or tours to come at certain times; even establish a penalty if they do not show up and you've arranged a live show for them. The theatre industry does this to real theatergoers who have forgotten the time of the show in the form of a hefty charge to a credit card, so do a number of restaurants, come to think of it; and many are somewhat forgiving and willing to reschedule as well.

    Preparation is as important as scheduling. You need to prepare your audience - tell them what this is, why they're doing it, and how it is different than what they've done before. Then tell them again. Remind them where it is, and the appropriate level of behavior. Then tell them some interesting details like what this is, why they're doing it, and how it is different. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Don't assume that because this is foremost in your mind, your participants are automatically going to feel the same way. But, once the time comes to become part of the experience, they stand a better chance of arriving prepared, and ready to engage you and your build in some original and imaginative ways, which is exactly what happened to us. The students arrived at their scheduled times (mostly), dressed and ready, and began to interact with the characters, the surroundings, and to become part of the story themselves - even (as Iggy said above) to delve into new possibilities for the narrative. That was exciting to see, and a pleasure to be a part of, especially since this was a beta test. It was a very good beta test!
Skeleton in the attic
Iggy's Coda: This has to "go to eleven," gentle readers. So, as Viv noted, I'll schedule and coordinate your interactive improv events in SL: fees begin at $200 USD per hour :)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Abuse of Furries in SL: A Student Learns

Location: Luskwood and Beyond

One student, whose name I'll withhold, had wondered whether or not the Furry subculture in Second Life was subject to the sort of discrimination that mostly eluded my students' dark-skinned human avatars.

She and a friend had traveled to Luskwood to interview SL's furries. Their respondents, while polite and helpful to the students' final project, boiled their replies down to "you will only know when you try it."

So they gave her a furry suit and sent her out into the larger world. Right away, trouble resulted as soon as someone said "Oh, look. A talking animal."
The image above shows the student being set alight by a group of furry-haters who also ran her down with a train and bumped her repeatedly. She was called a "furfag" and when she returned to Luskwood, the Furs there replied "we told you so." I suppose she could have filed an abuse report, but she was, in effect, baiting the griefers just to see what does happen to a Furry in an unfriendly environment.

Note the ironic backdrop: a menorah and Christmas Tree.

My student had no real-life interest in the Furry subculture, so the abuse against her, as a Furry, had no lasting impact. Her first-hand experience, however, accomplished what no reading could do: educating her to what can occur when one steps outside the boundaries of behavior or appearance deemed "normal" by bigots.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Skin They're In, 2009: Race & Second Life

Dance Lessons!

Location: Virtual Office, Grading Projects

This year, more students report getting dancing lessons than hearing the "N word" in Second Life. We just finished our week--and more for several writers--in different skins or genders.

Origin of the Project:
Ian, a Greek male in real life, about a week spent in the skin of another race, wondered this as he got ready:
Second Life is a virtual world, a world apart from reality, yet many things seem to carry over. But do the intangible and sociological borders carry over as well?
I've been wondering that since 2007. I did this experiment last year, to repeat the "Skin You're In" situation that Erika Therian experienced. As Hamlet Au's report noted, Therian met with outright hostility as a black woman, even from friends.

In repeating this test I'm less interested in presenting statistically significant results--let those better with numbers do that!--than with giving my students a transformative experience in SL after they are well accustomed to the virtual world. They then bring great energy to their writing and in gathering evidence to craft a defensible claim of limited scope, rather than cherry-picking a sweeping claim to defend, a bad habit from high school that my class sought to break. Last year, my class found using the "crawl to a claim" method that the newness of one's avatar, rather than its race, appeared to determine one's reception in a virtual world.

When I first mentioned the assignment, several writers, this year and last, noted how scared they were to be a different sort of avatar. As is nearly always case in my four classes that have used SL, students craft avatars that look as close to their real-life selves as possible.

One change this year: nearly every avatar had a gender-neutral name. I also wanted all writers to go to a range of places, and to have some choices about where they would visit. My collaborator and colleague Viv Trafalgar warned me not to send the students to the Public Orientation Island or the Morris/Ahern Welcome area, because of the griefers such places can attract. Yet when I discussed this idea in class, the students agreed that the Caledon Library, while full of avatars, would not provide a cross-section of the SL population. So they dove into several different regions.

Several even got free dancing lessons in purely social spaces.

"Everyone Loves Chocolate"
One writer, whose pictures are too tiny to show well here, put it this way, after finding that seemingly every male she met wanted to do more than dance.

I did not require anyone to dress a particular way, so some of the provocative remarks that black females got this year may be attributed as much to their appearing in revealing clothing as to their skin tone. Of course, in a world of mostly white or nonhuman avatars, the skin might be noticed, then the clothing, and the conclusion could be an implicitly racist conclusion that a "promiscuous black woman just arrived!"

This year, as in 2008, during the assignment period at least, not a single negative experience occurred based on overt racism. My students were scared when reading about what happened to Therian. As Emily wrote, "I felt so terrified of being verbally assaulted on SL, and instead I had a perfectly normal conversation with someone." Here she is with a well mannered older resident at the Memory Bazaar Welcome Area, where my own avatar arrived in SL from Orientation Island in early 2007:

Memory Bazaar

Some stand-out projects:
  • Ian's visits to virtual Plaka where, as a black man, he conversed in Greek with others. As he notes, Greece is "98% ethnically Greek" and in SL most of the Greeks already knew each other. He was greeted in Greek; perhaps the Virtual Athenians merely saw Ian's skin as a fashion choice. It's also funny to read Ian's account of a different spot where, in a twist of fate, he encountered a PhD student researching SL. I'm fond of this picture of him that, while blurry, shows his avatar interacting in the sort of diner/coffee shop I'd live in if I had enough free time:
Coffee Shop
  • Antoine, an African-American man in real life, posed as a white female. He overheard one "N word" comment, but the context made it hard to determine if it were directed at a black avatar nearby or was just part of an ongoing conversation. The avatars in question did not even seem to notice him.
  • Two students were treated poorly, as black women, at Luskwood. Both had received a good reception, by some of the same Furry avatars, when they appeared at Luskwood as white women. This seems odd, since Furries are so often targets of discrimination in SL. Both students were willing to be charitable. One of them wondered "whether their actions are merely reactions to the mistreatment that they have encountered. Here's one of the pair at the public Orientation Island.
Public Orientation Island

  • Jenna not only switched race (to caucasian) but also body-type. Below, she's half way through her transformation:
Instead of being young and fit with a trendy hair cut, she became plump and thick with a less unique hairstyle.
Two Changes

One avatar, full-figured like her, took time to have a prolonged conversation:
In real life people tend to gravitate towards other people who have an obvious similarity to them. This is usually associated with the idea that there is a sense of comfort in commonality. Judging from her willingness to open up to me, I believe the same concept applies in second life. In each region I visited in SL as a plump white female, I was a minority while "hot" white females had a dominating presence in large crowds. I felt more confident in approaching Jasmine because she was big like me. When I asked her what made her pick the body image of her avatar she said "I'm a big girl in real life." She also expressed that her avatar was a reflection of her real life image in both race, style, and body type. She claimed that being "big white girl" in SL did not prohibit her activities.
Jenna continued, "I faced no insults for being white but I did experience being 'invisible' which I contribute to being 'fat.' [The woman who talked to me] only furthered my suspicions in saying that insults directed at her were 'never for being white," but were "just for being a whale.' "

Conclusion: For SL-Experienced Students Only!

It would be foolish to toss new SL residents into this project; I don't recommend that faculty do this as a "one off" in a course that otherwise does not give students ample experience in SL to learn its skills and culture.

Overall, the findings by two groups of first-year writing students in two years may not be conclusive about race, but the apprehensions they all had were not matched by their experiences. Future students of this topic should control for variables such as clothing and, of course, location in the virtual world.

A sad coda to this project occurred after Ian had posted his project. He returned to Plaka, still in a dark skin, and in English someone said "Look at the N****r!" It repeated Erika Therian's experience, and Ian noted that the speakers had, in fact, been talking in Greek before making the slur. I'll still find hope, however, in one student's final remarks:
I had such a good time as a black avatar I don't know that I would want to risk changing back to the way I looked before.
Next year we try again. Meanwhile, here's another finding. Those males who changed gender to female, of whatever race, did encounter sexist remarks and clumsy (or hilarious) pick-up lines, but that is a tale I'll soon tell in another post.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Making A Low-End or Old Computer Run Second Life

Location: Joel Foner's Blog

I've often whined here, and at meetings, about the steep system requirements for running Second Life.

Kudos to Joel for posting "9 Ways to Make Second Life Run Faster on Your Low Performance Computer". Joel uses a nice visual metaphor as well, the image of a 1970s Chevy Monza racing. Some of those cars had a small-block V8 crammed under the hood; I nearly got killed in an old girlfriend's stupid-fast Monza (until it fell apart, like most of its GM ilk back then).

So how can those of us make our old buckets of bolts "run like a scalded dog," as Southerners like to say about our cars?

Follow Joel's advice and the comments there, especially if you are a PC user.

I want to thank a SLED member for telling me to no run my laptop off the battery when running Second Life. That worked well to improve performance, especially when I connect by wireless.

Another tip to Mac laptop users who MUST use the battery: check the battery monitor at the top of the screen and click/pull down for "better performance." Just don't expect to keep the battery charged long, at least on an older MacBook Pro.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Reality Check: Pearl Harbor Day & Global Warming

Location: Staring at my 1/72 scale Japanese Zero

68 years ago, the inspiration for the little plane I glued together and painted, as well as Vals and Kates, roared out of a clear Honolulu sky to send America's prestige (temporarily) to the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The nation bounced back, lulled out of isolationist nay-saying about the intentions of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.

It's time to take a little break from virtual worlds to consider the inventions we build in our heads, when we are faced with danger yet ignore it. In that, the lessons of Pearl Harbor still resonate.

It's hard to think, now, how by the late 30s, Depression-wracked America still could not see the terrible menace posed by Europe's totalitarian systems. Perhaps it's an American virtue, or vice, to blissfully forget how past threats mounted, quietly, until--to use a more recent metaphor--their long shadows rippled across the gleaming surfaces of tall buildings soon to fall.

The problem with another contemporary threat, global warming, is that it lacks that terrible moment of clarity of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. This morning, NPR reported that, as claimed in the findings of a recent Harris poll, "barely half" of all Americans consider carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere to be capable of warming our planet.

This disconnect from scientific thinking should terrify those of us who put trust in the the scientific community and consider our economic fortunes inextricably linked to our ecosystem's health. Every day we hear about the decreasing size of the Arctic icecap, the deletion of Greenland's glaciers, and the freakish weather that drowns Bangladesh (or Biloxi) with increasing regularity. And yet, like Americans on those sunny mornings in 1941 and 2001, we don't realize what is in the sky above us.

The defenders at Pearl likewise had some warnings, but they mistook radar-blips from the Japanese strike-force for incoming Air Corps B-17s. Meanwhile, the USS Ward sank a Japanese sub near the harbor. Messages to commanders,who might have called ships to battle stations or launched the P-40s at Wheeler Field, went unheeded or got delivered long after the bombs began to fall.

After the attack, FDR's existing plans--from a man derided as a Socialist--to build the nation's military might swung into high gear.

Now we've again wasted time. I'd hoped that Hurricane Katrina might have been the "Pearl Harbor Moment" for this new global menace.

As President Obama goes to Copenhagen, good science struggles with the nay-sayers of the GOP, scared citizens overwhelmed by seemingly distant climate-threats, and polluting firms like Exxon-Mobil who fund climate skeptics. We may need a few more ecological Pearl Harbors.

In 1941, a nation pulling itself out of the Depression and with no great appetite to become a world leader was roused to action by Isoroku Yamamoto's sneak-attack. But up to that point, Great Britain, the Free French, the Soviets, and the Chinese were hanging on by a thread.

Perhaps Obama needs to embrace FDR, not JFK, as his model. And when safety and prosperity return, and carbon levels begin to stabilize (it will be decades before they diminish) he'll have generations of working-class Americans, like my parents, who will honor him and his legacy by voting for his party in election after election.

That's the hope I have for this Pearl Harbor Day.

Friday, December 4, 2009

UC Irvine's Program in Virtual Worlds: Education for Prefigurative Times

Location: Pixels & Policy Blog

This is quite a coup for higher education. Kudos to Viv Trafalgar for pointing this out to me. Read the entire tale over at Pixels & Policy.

And it comes on the very day I print and mail in a recommendation to UC Irvine's English Department--of course they want print--for one of my finest students.

How can I tell a bright young person that "you are headed down a dead-end road?" The traditional humanities show few signs of adapting fast enough to changing circumstances. Too often they still seem mired in the "Theory Wars" of the 80s and 90s that were so depressing a part of my grad-school days.

And for all their glitzy videos on YouTube, in my experience "The New Humanities" is still slouching toward academia, waiting to be born.

UC Irvine's program, however, gives me hope. As the writer at Pixels & Policy puts it so well, "The chokehold of elite private schools is weakening as smaller schools turn to cost-effective programs like virtual worlds studies."

It's damned well time for that. What can many of our elite schools offer, except vital credentials, for a culture that is "prefigurative," to quote from one of the many articles by scholars of technology in the classroom, Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher? A prefigurative culture cannot predict the pace or specifics of change; elders' sureties no longer are capable of providing more than a nostalgic solace for the young.

I don't even know if Richmond will still be an inland city or underwater in 100 years, let alone what sort of technology will be in our bodies and computers. Yet amid cyclonic change, we can still spot the weather-patterns. I'd wager that some type of virtual environment will be a constant in our lives. And as for the guardians of old forms of academic disciplines? I'm not optimistic.

As I read the UC Irvine information, I feel that I was born 30 years too early. Of course, when I consider the vexing challenges of the 21st century, I wonder if being born 30 years earlier might not have been the better fate. We'll see.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Never Forget in Second Life: Back it up!

Never Forget--Back it up!
Location: House of Usher

Disaster can happen. So in the interests of not going postal, I made the big backup.

It's exciting to know that the new Imprudence 1.2 client for SL permits offworld backup. That is step two.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Readings on World AIDS Day in Second Life

Jenaia & LoriVonne
Location: Southern Tier, New York

I went to this location, at the invitation of Jenaia of Story Quest, to share my poem "A Question for Uncle D" at a public reading. Organizers Jenaia (at right) and LoriVonne (at left) are pictured above. I was honored to be part of this. Ever since first visiting Story Book Island, I've been moved emotionally by how Second Life permits a powerful sense of presence in exploring the life of another person. For the longest time, I felt Uncle D to be a real person.

In the end, the quest provides a powerful way to reflect on the lives of those who live with HIV/AIDS, as well as those who have left us.

Many folks have written to Uncle D, part of a growing body of collaborative work. Here's a picture of Judi Newall, reading her letter:

Judi Reads

Dear D.,

I miss you. It seems funny to me that I do. We didn't see each other these last 10 years. I was busy with school and work, running after things that probably you had already realized were less fulfilling than they seemed. I always wanted to write or call. I would think about it at inopportune times. Just before drifting off to sleep after a long day, I would remember you trying to teach me algebra before I even knew how to add. Of course I begged you to, I had just had a taste of kindergarten and your high school papers looked so fascinating. Of course, it is too late to call now. I would say to myself and make a note to call the next day. But then, the next critical event would blow the intention away, like cold winter wind. And now you are gone. I can't call. And filled with regret at what I have lost, I feel the longing.

I miss you.

My piece, from my uncle Louis, a Navy Corpsman who died saving others on Okinawa, was a bit more hard-boiled: the sort of uncle-to-uncle chat the men would have had over a few beers.

Jenaia also shared this YouTube video about Karuna Island in SL and World AIDS day.

Everything at the reading was as immersive as the experience of touring Story Book Island. I was impressed by the story quilts, for instance, that participants made for the audience to use as we sat on the grass and listened.


Second Life has always possessed the power to transform our real lives. This was a good occasion to prove that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

More On Second Life's Image Problems

Location: Student Blogs
image courtesy of Ryan's Koinup Site

My students are no longer noobs. They have done a great deal of thinking about virtual worlds, and almost universally, they give Linden Lab's attempts at marketing a HUGE thumbs-down. Here are two standout blog posts.

From Ryan:
"Just recently I was talking to one of my friends across the hall. I was talking about how we use Second Life in class to help us with our writing. My friend said something along the lines of “isn’t that one of those games that 30 year old losers play in their mom’s basement?” It is this image that is hindering Second Life’s advancement in the communication technology front. To someone who doesn’t know anything about Second Life, he had the 'creepy' vibe. Linden Lab needs to fix this, and use their money to better promote Second Life, not as a serial killers paradise or loser hot spot." Read his entire post.

From Jenna:
"The credibility of virtual worlds is not yet known by the mass public, especially among the instant message- texting- Facebook generation, which I am a part of. I had to explain the existence of Second Life to every friend I mentioned it to because they didn't have any knowledge of it. This shows a serious disconnect between virtual worlds and the real world. Word of mouth is not nearly enough to promote its existence and potential as an educational and communication technology." Read her entire post.

From Caroline:
The biggest problem SL faces as a communications technology is the unappealing light it has been portrayed in in Hollywood and the resulting image "non-SLers" gain from these shows. I know first hand because I was one of them. I think a lot of people are hesitant to join worlds such as SL because they are afraid that they too will end up with a stalker or worse. There are a lot of skeptics out there, and I think that unless Linden Lab makes more effort to put SL in a more positive, less "serial-killer" type light then it will slowly begin to die out. Read her entire post.

From a Few Students about Facebook vs. SL:
It may be naivety, but they trust Facebook profiles more than they do profiles in SL. With Facebook, the students claim it to be harder to conceal one's identity. Interesting point, but I'm not convinced. One can construct a completely bogus life at Facebook with the right photos and activities, while still giving the company valid information when setting up one's account. Granted, that is harder than in SL. But a very clever Facebook impostor might never be sniffed out, until someone met the person face to face.

My pro-bono marketing advice to Linden Lab:
  • Change the name. "Second Life" is too "creepy," to use an overly popular "student suitcase word." How about the old "Linden World"? it sounds like a theme-park where one can have some escapist fun, not a secret life.
  • Funny TV: This works for the Sims. Why not promote it in ways that are funny, not pitiful, as in Dwight's case when he uses SL in The Office? Ryan recalled that show's negative message. Instead, have TV spots showing families separated by geography skiing (and falling down). Feature old high school pals meeting online to race or go dancing.
Just get us out of the "creepy treehouse." I'm not convinced LL can do this, ever, with a product called "Second Life." Other virtual worlds have more fortuitous names.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Trouble in a Real-World Invented World

Location: Dubai Towers Web site

It took a while to convince myself that these buildings, "inspired by the movement of candlelight," were not right out of Second Life. With its indoor ski-runs in the middle of a desert, the 800-meter-tall Burj Dubai, and plans for a 1,200 meter-tall building, it's easy to mistake the U.A.E. city for something out of a virtual world.

Now, the candle that Dubai lit is flickering.

In the Gulf, oil remains the regions' source of income, though states like the U.A.E. and Kuwait, already sensing the aging of the region's oil fields, struck off into a different direction. Like my ancestors in Lebanon, these Arabs understand the power of becoming hubs for trade, banking, and, in Dubai's case, high-end tourism. And they have, one hopes, learned from my relatives' experience to avoid sectarian warfare.

It seemed reasonable. But Dubai, as one observer puts it (see his slides below) has become "a city on crack."

The crisis in Dubai has real-life consequences for developing markets and many wealthy individuals whose fortunes or failures I'd normally shrug off. Dubai teems with the sort of megarich who buy artificial islands or put their condos in 800-meter tall skyscrapers. As Fitzgerald reminded us in another era, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

Now they too may get to see how the other 99.5% lives. One gets a sense of how wild the changes in Dubai have been, and how like a virtual world it appears, from this comparison of images. Too fragile to sustain? Too hyped and fevered, like the virtual worlds that flicker on our monitors?

I learned a shortened version of this Dubai proverb when I was a younger:

"My grandfather rode a camel, my father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son drives a Land Rover, his son will drive a Land Rover, but his son will ride a camel."

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum's saying may well come to pass.
Dubai would look interesting in ruins, like some alien city from an SF novel. Let's hope we never see this future. It won't bode well for the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Neuromancer on Stage in New York

Location: H+ Magazine Web Site

Following links from a student's wiki project, I came across this post by the one and only R.U. Sirius, cyberboho and former editor of Mondo 2000. I hope the performance piece he mentions, Case, leads to interest in a film. The Internet Movie Database has rumors of a 2011 movie.

Gibson started all this craziness for me. We thought the book so cool in grad school, with our black sunglasses and, tucked into our leather jackets, battered copies of Gibson's novels. That seems eons ago. Yet the novel sticks with me; I came to Second Life partly, as my in-world profile shows, to see if he was right about virtual worlds.

Gibson has stopped writing science fiction these days, mostly, as I heard him explain to an NPR interviewer, because reality has caught up with him and surpassed his early visions.

And what visions. While we don't yet have "Microsofts" to plug into jacks behind our ears, razorgirl meat-puppets turned street samurai, orbital AIs that make artwork, or Rastas in abandoned space colonies, we do have a lot of Gibson's fearful future with us: soulless corporations with slick-as-glass slaves who work for them, governments in shambles, a climate-crisis, global terrorists. Yet I don't call his future "dystopian" as much as "detached," in the same way hard-boiled detective fiction can feel. Neuromancer's world scares students with its steely-cool hipness.

Despite my misgivings after the awful mess of bringing "Johnny Mnemonic" to the big screen, this new project might spawn something better.

My mind, like a television tuned to a dead channel, awaits the arrival of Neuromancer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Educators from Second Life Branch Out to Other Virtual Worlds

AJ rallies the team
Location: Virtual Valley of the Kings

I was amazed that we got 18--or 17, with someone crashing frequently--into Rezzable's Virtual King Tut Experience. It was our group's first foray outside Second Life. It will not be our last. We plan visits to Metaplace and Reaction Grid soon.

Our transcript shows a lively and lighthearted group of educators pondering what it will be like to explore multiple worlds. Given our group's upcoming name-change to The Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable, the change of venue was appropriate.

Readers know that I am less than pleased with how Linden Lab has handled educational issues recently, and now they heap on changes that will hurt small merchants, and educators, using the Xstreetsl market they acquired last year.

Time to shuffle our feet, if not vote with them, in other virtual worlds. Land is cheaper there and, in time, content will be as rich and the community large enough to sustain our efforts. Rezzable itself left much of its SL property over pricing.

Others will, in time too. Princeton has scaled by its SL presence, as Paisley Beebe noted in her interview with jokay Wollengong.

Who will the winners and losers in as these technologies evolve? If you know that answer, time to make some strategic investments.

Friday, November 20, 2009

From the BBC about Second Life: "Shame, Really"

Low Lag Horizon

Location: Watching the Horizon

It's not wonderful to have your own misgivings seconded by a major news source.

"What happened to Second Life?" considers how the coverage of the virtual world has waned since the hype-days of 2007, when I came in world.

Amid the consternation, even fury, caused by several Linden Lab decisions, such as the ending of the mentors program and the new fees for users of the Linden's online market, Xstreetsl.com, there's a broader story.

We in SL spend too much time in our little universe to see that the world beyond has just moved on. This may be why almost none of my students or colleagues even know what SL is.

Points in the BBC story:
  • Return on investment was about zero for most businesses that came into SL during the hype era. My reading: they had bad business plans, but they also came away with a desire "never to do THAT again." And they spread the word.
  • SL does not work well on low-end systems and not at all on hand-held devices. Small and portable computing, not Alienware desktops, are the devices of choice of the future.
  • The experience for newcomers has been awful and they don't return. As one commenter put it, about her experience of wandering aimlessly, then quitting after a few days: "It was a great idea but just didn't work in practice. Shame, really."
That is perfect English understatement about a looming disaster.

I'm pleased by one thing: I'm active in other virtual worlds. I don't feel confident for the future of Linden Lab.

Students Run Wild in SL!

Location: Richmond Island, Arm Draped Over Forehead

It had to happen, eventually, in Second Life: I teach a class that bonded enough that they began to have FUN without too much prompting. This does not happen often enough in college courses, especially at my school, where so much emphasis gets placed on rigor for its own sake.

Lately, the students have begun to bring their laptops to the lab, where we don't have SL loaded. Others would download the client on the faster desktop machines.

What got them over their initial caution? Guided experiences in-world. I am pleased that so many of them went to Burning Life. Unlike 2008, this year I added a required blog-post about attending an event in SL, and that led to a few getting into uncomfortable situations, but more of them were able to interact with SLers and find out that they are not--mostly--misfits or perverts. The few who did have problems learned about muting and "unfriending" the persistently annoying avatars they encountered.

As a result I have "Thumper" cavorting as a giant rabbit (and pleased that the owner of the avatar slipped in a "Harvey" reference). I have "Riley" in butterfly wings (and bald) hanging out at the Public Orientation Island.


It may be a crazy world, but this class at least got to see a world, not merely a collection of empty, if beautiful, sims.

More soon on what they found when they changed race or gender.