Monday, March 29, 2010

Virtual Conferences: A Sense of Place?

Bay City 2

Location: Back Home From CCCC

One thing a virtual conference lacks, when the event ends, is a sense of place. I don't get up from my laptop to find a new city outside my window. But universities don't pay conferees to enjoy a new town.

At the end of VWBPE, Linden Labs reclaimed
the sims where we had met. It would be like Louisville rolling up the convention district as soon as we all left town. Fat chance of that: one conference after another rolls into town. There are even bars that remember writers like to drink (and Louisville has many bars). I really enjoyed seeing "Welcome National Council of Teachers of English!" in front of drinking-holes. I sampled a few very fine small-batch and single-barrel Bourbons that I cannot find in Virginia.

The weirdness of a typical convention-center district, however, never fails to strike me: it seems as artificial as any region of Second Life. I have to escape and find the "real town" after about a day of prowling a convention-center's habitrails and ficus jungles.

When I go to conventions alone, I drink less, however, and I tend to see more sessions. That still leaves a day or two with free time to explore. So seeking to avoid the drunken part of schmoozapalooza, I skipped the big publishers' parties to drive, with a Steve Earle / Del McCoury soundtrack blaring in my rented Pontiac, to Owensboro, KY, to the legendary Moonlite Barbecue Inn to once again taste the late Pappy Bosley's finest recipes: Burgoo, hickory-smoked mutton, pulled pork, and the "very hot sauce."

I won't digress any more about barbeque, but if som
eone named "Pappy" is involved, I tend to show up. Driving back, with XTC keeping me company, I got lost in the "hill-hopping" territory of Southern Indiana. Get a powerful car, drive fast, and you'll see what I mean.

It's lovely and un-ruined land, far different from the hideous suburban nowhere that has devoured everything around the Moonlite. Back in that part of the Hoosier State for the first time since 1991, I found myself making wrong turns, and not really worrying. I was near some old-stomping (and hunting and fishing) grounds of mine near the towns of Jasper, Paoli, and--my favorite--Santa Claus.

The small farms and woodlots were lovely, the little hamlets looking trim and sedate, just as I remembered them from 20 years ago. I took extra time to soak up a place that I've lost, albeit for some bittersweet reasons.

Old Louisville

I also got time to see downtown Louisville beyond the bland convention district and its surreal mix of (this week) of writing faculty, National Guard Field Artillerymen, math teachers, and indoor-archery competitors carrying bows and arrows. Heading south on Fourth Street, I came to that human-scale, older Louisville that got bulldozed closer to the river, all to make room for the office blocks and crappy 1980s monoliths that will soon be unlivable as easy oil and convention travel dwindle. The image, "clear-cutting Louisville," is from the Old Louisville Web site. An ugly Hyatt hotel sits there now, with the sort of circular top-floor restaurant that looks like a disco-era flying saucer had landed and stayed past the decline of spandex pants.

In the surviving part of Old Louisville I found D. Nalley's, a 1950s type of diner that only takes cash and serves groaners of breakfasts for under $4. On the way back, I admired the sporadically gentrifying area of urban lofts, local shops, and more: the walkable, bikeable, infrastructure we'll use when the suburbs begin their terminal decline in a few years. Louisville, like downtown Richmond, has too many surface parking lots, but we can rip them up for urban farms to feed ourselves soon, as I suspect we'll need to do under the economic effects of global oil depletion.

I learned a great deal about the urban planning of a city very much like my own. But we call that a vacation, not work. I stopped to oggle the hideous new library, a 1970s stack of slabs that looks very much like the one that crash-landed in Richmond. At the same time, Louisville had the good sense not to tear down the marvelous Beaux-Arts building that was there before someone let "progress" loose on the area.

Sadly for my explorations, I had to get back to go to a morning session, so I trudged past the gutted Moorish-styled Falls City Theater Supply Company and the Modernist Kentucky Typewriter building. I was in paradise...and not just because I'd found a Lebanese deli. I was seeing a past that points the way to a humbler, locally made, and sustainable future. Louisville was clearly a raucous river city with lots of booze and theaters once. It will be a nexus for trade again on this big river, and without as much technological spectacle, future Kentuckians may be typing hand-bills for live shows to entertain those folks who "come to the big town."

Mixed-Reality Endnote:

This is the first CCCC where a participant looked at my name tag and said "you are Iggy."

Where's my adoring mob?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Second Life's Cheap Motels?

free parking
Location: Login Screen

It would be handy for builders to have a rent-by-the-hour location, in order to avoid the public sandboxes, long havens for griefers.

But I'm not certain that is what Linden Lab intended when, upon logging on, SLers see an advisory to click to learn about "renting by the hour" from Leia Lulu.

This does send a curious message to new SLers, and it's one I'm not sure educators will appreciate.

I don't mind Ms. Lulu's entrepreneurship here. It's a brilliant way to make cash, but the fact that Linden Lab put it on the login screen means two things: she paid them a lot of cash and the Lindens really don't care much about changing their negative reputation with non-social SL users.

Or am I missing something here?

I do have another idea, closer to home, as well for this offer. I just evicted all virtual hillbillies from my mainland parcel, abandoning it rather than selling, given the sagging sales of mainland property. I then, for next to nothing, bought a smaller 512 sq. M one (no Tier!) for rezzing vehicles. Pap's living in the cab of his truck there, for now, and he notes that "leastways this-here roof ain't a-leakin' on my sufferin' woebegone head."

When the next avatar arrives with a love-child in her arms, maybe Pappy can rent himself a flophouse from Lulu for the ever-expanding Enoch clan. "She gots a hillbilly name, Wiggly," Pappy told me over a new jug of Old Painless. "I reckons she will take pity on a po' boy like me. Say, what do she look like?"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Svarga Still Matters

Location: Chamber of the Oracle

I was delighted to get word, via New World Notes, that Svarga, site of my first "aha" moments, has again opened to the public. In a very real sense, this is Svarga (and SL) 2006, before sculpted prims and Windlight changed the experience in-world for all of us.

Laukosargas Svarog, the original creator, largely left SL, but Linden Lab has apparently purchased the content from her and opened Svarga as a sort of national park. I love this idea for many reasons, and despite some mean-spirited (and not unexpected) carping from Prokofy Neva over Socialist tendencies (yawn) Svarga still matters.

History of Technology: Saving Svarga sets a precedent that, while making some builders uncomfortable, could preserve signature work in the history of virtual worlds. Those of us who study the history of technology lament when monuments in its development do not end up in the Smithsonian or its equivalent overseas. It is instructive to have an actual Xerox Alto, Apple I, and IBM 8088 PC to show to students, not to mention Chuck Yeager's X-1 Glamorous Glennis, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of Saint Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia.

With virtual technologies, however, it's harder to preserve things, so Linden Lab presents future historians the chance--if they keep Svarga around in future iterations of SL and whatever comes after--for us to explore. Code may change, but there's a better chance of my students seeing a "heritage" sim as it was meant to be seen than taking a ride on a Saturn V.

Svarga may seem dated, compared to amazing builds I've seen in SL and, more recently, Heritage Key. Yet it provides a touchstone for those works, a bar to be topped. We need Svarga to remind us of what is possible.

A Place to Dream: What use is beauty, in a capitalist sense? Can it be made a commodity? Yes. Does it lose something in the process? Can you tour it on the back of a giant wasp?
Wasp Tour
I go from the purely pedagogical to the aesthetic and Romantic here. Since my arrival in early 2007, SL has steadily become more professionalized; Philip Rosedale noted that the Burning Man era had ended, after he stepped down as Linden Lab CEO. Of course I hope Linden Lab makes the money to keep SL afloat, but it needs a space to inspire the arts.

Cultural creatives online should not be elbowed out of the way to serve the bottom line. When they do, like art-district bohemians when a warehouse area goes condo, only a shell is left without the "edge" to produce interesting art. This has occurred all over Richmond, VA, and it pains me to see the pattern replicated in virtual spaces.

I suppose Linden Lab had to become more corporate, but along with the Burning Life festival, I'd love to see spaces like Svarga kept around to inspire content creators.

So as long as Svarga stays open, I'll go back, put 25L in Taras Balderdash's oracle (all money supports charity) and see what it portends. The oracle produces random advice, like Brian Eno's Oblique Strategy cards.
Chamber of the Oracle

Today it told me, "Offer a teleport to a friend." I'm going to do that--and bring them to Svarga. So here's a teleport link for all of you!

Kunstlerism of the Week

No picture for this one. This week James Howard Kunstler takes a break from talking about oil depletion but takes aim at the GOP in "The Party of Cruelty":

The most striking elements of so-called health care in America these days is how cruel and unjust it is, and in taking a stand against reforming it the Republican party appeared to be firmly in support of cruelty and injustice. This would be well within the historical tradition of other religious crusades which turned political -- such as the Spanish Inquisition and the seventeenth century war against witchcraft.

I'd have preferred a European single-payer system, since in my personal experience, Spain had a version of our current rotten system in 1985. Now, without sacrificing private property rights or taxing citizens into poverty, they cover their populace, fully.

To those who would call me a Socialist, in this sense I most certainly am, as I am when it comes to building infrastructure, protecting the environment, and curbing the rapacious power of corporations (or are they people? I guess the Supreme Court just resolved that).

Basic health care should be a universal right for all citizens. And there I stand.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Virtual Conferences: Less Schmoozapalooza

Location: In Recovery, Louisville CCCC

image "borrowed" from multiple sites

Another reason to prefer virtual conferences in place of actual ones: for too many conferees, big events like CCCC and the dreaded MLA meat-market have become places to pal around with the bright lights and impress just the right person.

At a prior CCCC, I spotted a well known scholar of computers and writing pinned in a corner by what I'd describe as a rabid "fan." The scholar is an old friend, so I walked by, inconspicuous nutjob that I am, and made a funny, but pained, face. He nearly cracked up, since he knew exactly what I's painful to have to play this particular game as an academic. Yet he is accessible to all comers, as are many pioneers I've met in the field of computers and composition. Not so long ago, it was once a tiny field.

I suppose avatars get mobbed at events, too, but there is always the faux system-crash as a way to escape that. More seriously, however, SL luminaries are available because they are connecting from home or office. The sessions end, folks walk around, and odds are you can ask a follow-up Q in person or at least get permission to ask it later, via notecard.
Given academics' crowded professional lives, that's a lot less likely after a traditional meeting.
Crowd Scene
Perhaps is SL truly becomes huge, with millions of users, this familiarity with its "names" will end.

So will I continue to go to big national conferences? At times, yes, but increasingly I plan to attend smaller meetings and, when I can, avoid traditional conferences of any size. In the case of CCCC, which did not fall during a break, I have a few days work piled up before me. A virtual meeting could be visited, as I did for VWBPE, between classes or after lunch.

Obligatory drinking reference (again): We cannot go out for drinks with colleagues at a virtual event (in any way that matters to me). Thanks for that note, Dan. At the same time, I can get to know colleagues well enough in advance to be sure that I would want to have a drink with them, when we meet in the flesh.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Virtual Conferences: The Tech Advantage

Our Presentation
Locations: CCCC, Louisville & VWBPE, Second Life

Note to readers: the brilliant Viv Trafalgar must also be modest, because she's standing in front of her name in the image above, from VWBPE. You already know the malcontent at the right.

Having just attended a few sessions at Virtual Worlds: Best Practices in Education 2010 and read Dusan Writer's excellent post about the event, I set out for Kentucky, a nine-hour drive, to go to the Conference on College Composition and Communication. I learn a lot at every CCCC, but given several factors, I think I'd get just as much if not more out of an online event.

There's more to commend virtual conferences than saving money and energy on travel. I'll talk about a few technical advantages, and at least one moral one, in my next few posts, then give readers my peak-oil travelogue to Louisville.

Reason 1) Better Technologies of Presentation: Most big-city conference centers and hotel ballrooms have rotten internet connectivity. Business types tote in their PC laptops and blah-blah over canned Powerpoint shows, whereas educators want to use, show movies, present live sites. Even getting a data projector for 90 minutes ran me--well, ran my employer--$80. I carry a Mac adaptor for VGA input, but some colleagues drop the 80 bucks and still cannot present any media.

And at most presentations, presenters read a paper in progress. I heard two good SL talks given as a reading at CCCC, but for one I kept wanting to see the presenter's avatar or that of her students, the subject of her talk. The room only had an old-style overhead projector for transparencies. On the other hand, in virtual worlds all presenters need are rezz-rights for the conference venue, perhaps a gaming headset for voice, and prep time. As soon as the bugs are out of the SL 2 Viewer, we'll have live media on the fly at in-world conferences and it will be free of charge.

Reason 2) More techne, less talky-talk: We can do things, rhetorically, in virtual worlds that we cannot at a corporeal conference. When I attended Barry Joseph's talk on "Revenge of the Ludic Life: The Future of 3D virtual World Education" he could change his avatar into a clown...which led me to shout "what does that clown think he's doing?" to much laughter. It's a line I'd always wanted to use and actually fit into the concept Barry discussed.

But Joseph was after serious points, when he showed how shifts in identity of an avatar could encourage creative and pedagogically useful play. My students have little experience with this.

Ludic Life!

At a face-to-face academic meeting, however, instead of showing, we tell, and any clown clothes on academics are tragic fashion mistakes, not pedagogical strategies. Too often, talk of the ludic gets buried in making nods to the correct theorists, in shout-outs to luminaries in the audience, and so forth. Yawn. I do need the theory, but it comes best for me in the context of print and reading-time, not
name-dropping. We are buried in episteme at the expense of techne.

Dusan's post says this better than I could, and better than CCCC presenters--writing teachers all--have said. Because at online conferences, participants see that
"knowledge is constructed from the granular components of craft….that in a world in which the accumulation of knowledge is increasingly based upon techne as compared to episteme." This is writerly thinking of the sort that compositionists have stressed for years in our praxis with students. And CCCC too often I hear papers read blandly or Q&A reduced to "Ive have a question...not really. Let me tell you about MY project."

The sessions at this VWBPE often included break-outs to other virtual worlds, tours of projects inside SL, and the ability to bring in students for discussion. This is just not possible at an event like CCCC with distance to project-sites being insurmountable because of geography or lousy Internet service in the conference ballrooms.

One presenter about SL at CCCC had the very canny idea of giving us a nicely formatted bibliography so we could learn more later. That was brilliant and kept us focused on the tasks at hand.

Grudging Admission: Okay--the CCCC book room provides brain-porn for academics. But that's the best work-related reason I can find for coming to an actual conference. I picked up several titles to help with my research and program-development.

And single-barrel bourbon. But I have that at home already.

Next: Less Schmoozapalooza

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No Flying, But No More Death By Powerpoint: The ProtoSphere Virtual World

Location: Eyeing ProtonMedia's Eye-Candy

A business-only virtual world that makes meetings of hundreds of avatars possible? Sure--give Linden Lab $55,000 for SL Enterprise. That sounded like a large chunk of change until I ran across a competitor's impressive product, ProtoSphere.

At $100 to $250 per user, it promises to cost a lot more than the Linden solution, so perhaps we casual and educational SLers should not gripe so much about expenses.

ProtoSphere already claims to provide more than SL Enterprise has on offer, and without SL's larger and not-so-savory reputation. Of interest to me is how ProtonMedia's CEO Ron Burns touts the virtual world as more immersive and inclusive than video conferences, noting that participants are remarkable honest when communicating as an avatar. He claims too that "There is [sic] no self-conscious video telepresence video artifacts here."

There is that, for the poor readers who have bad-hair days. Note to self: every day for me is a no-hair day, so I'm set for either world.

Perhaps Burns discusses it elsewhere, but any virtual environment lets simulations be made quickly. That is just not possible in a video conference, where no one can "walk through" a virtual environment.

Maria Korolov at Hypergrid Business also points out that unlike SL Enterprise, there is no content generated by end users, and that the company does the building for clients. This may account for the price, going upward with the degree of customization and content creation that is required." For for a 500-user world, the fees might begin at $50,000, right in the range of SL Enterprise.

Selling points to companies are not new ones: lower travel costs, prototyping, and so forth. But ProtoSphere is primarily for meeting and exchanging materials. I'll focus on how it differs from existing virtual worlds we use for education and socializing.

First is anonymity. "Every user in Protosphere has their own social network profile," Burns states, so the company has reached a point Linden Lab strives to have for its business clients: full transparency to real-world identity.

Second is document sharing, a holy grail for educators in SL. The little kiosks for document-sharing in-world seem rather nifty to me, working like diner juke boxes to scroll through available materials.
Microsoft is a partner in this venture, so ProtonMedia has a major-league backer for their virtual-world client. Of course, MS is also active in Reaction Grid; a case that the big boys from Redmond are after several virtual world contenders, with an eye to buying out the most successful developer? This would not be the first time MS has made just such a canny move.

One of the company's FAQs says it all about the distance that Linden Lab needs to travel to cross the gulf established by its reputation in the business world:

What is the difference between ProtoSphere and Second Life?
 ProtoSphere is a 3D immersive environment built on the Microsoft stack to address business collaboration needs. SecondLife is a business to consumer 3D online service built on open-source technologies and focused on e-commerce, entertainment and third party development.

Burroughs takes a shot right across the Lindens' (and Avatar Reality's Blue Mars) bows by noting that "The teaming environments created by by our customers in ProtoSphere are strictly for business and will deliver measurable ROI in terms of operational efficiency." So no furries or sex clubs or driving balls 1000 yards at low-g Martian golf courses, I suppose.

A business only world without those things would bore many social ussers, and one without end-user content would bore most educators, but ProtonMedia has made a wise business move. As a marketing professor friend who spent time in SL during the "hype" era said, "there's not any ROI here for traditional businesses." This was only months before the exodus of brick-and-mortar companies from SL began in 2007.

ProtoSphere's makers learned from this and go beyond a "Virtual American Apparel Store" model to what virtual worlds do best: permit old forms of collaboration to exist quickly over great distances. To get an even closer look at ProtoSphere in action, check their video page. A high-definition WMV files can be downloaded; it's where I've taken the screen captures for this post.

Kudos to Rob Kelley, an old friend from grad school who is now a partner and COO at LiquidHub, for telling me to have a look at ProtoSphere.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Peak Oiler's Riposte to the Singularity Timeline

Location: Ruins of Azalea Mall, Richmond VA

I'm combining this post with my usual "Kunstlerism of the Week." I've been thinking about Transhumanism lately, and debating the topic in a friendly way with some proponents of the idea. In fact, one of the graduates of Dr. Raymond Kurzweil's Singularity University belongs to the Second Life Education List (SLED), and we've been posting our prognostications back and forth.

James Howard Kunstler's post this week notes:

We could conceivably take ourselves toward futures to be proud of, but they are not likely to be the kind of futures we are so busy projecting in our techno-grandiose fantasies about machine "singularities."

As a neo-luddite and organic gardener, my objections to transcending the body should be obvious: I don't consider it an appropriate technology for reasons of social justice and concern for the environment. As an ecologist, I fear that Transhumans and AIs would have so little regard for the found (as compared to remade) natural world that they'd make today's eco-rapists look like green angels.

Of course, as a believer that cheap oil will soon reach a global maximum of production and then begin a terminal decline, the ideas of the Transhumanist movement seem moot to me. We may not have a reliable enough power grid or transportation system to make the advances they predict, let alone distribute them in a way meaningful to the majority of humanity. I draw upon the thinking of Richard Heinberg (Power Down and The Party's Over), Michael Klare (Resource Wars), and Kunstler (The Long Emergency) for my futurist slant. I draw upon "The Hirsch Report" written for the US Dept. of Energy and Matthew Simmon's Twilight in the Desert for the science behind my ideas.

What sort of time line might I set against Dr. Kurzweil's? This is my optimistic projection, as compared to those of some Peak-Oil writers.

  • Modest economic recovery in US and Europe. Chinese and Indian growth continue, as Mexico's Cantarell oil field--a massive source of US crude--continues its steep decline.
  • Saudi oil begins to decline, covered up at first by their state oil monopoly. Other Gulf states announce (as have Kuwait and Yemen) that their oil reserves are in permanent decline. New finds in western Iraq offset much of this.
  • US consumption remains near 20 million barrels per day. Canada asserting its oil wealth.
  • World oil production begins a slow decline, amid increasing demand from China, India, and oil-producing nations as their consumer economies ramp up.
  • Advanced virtual-world / VR applications a toy or a tool for research among a tiny minority of computer users. Social virtual worlds like Farmville remain popular but never engage all five senses.
  • US infrastructure at the crisis point as fiscal constraints, no-tax zealotry, a car-based lifestyle, past entitlements, and insufficiency of alternative fuels conspire to produce consumer rage, dispossession, and steady economic decline.
  • Suburban life increasingly expensive, and in-flow to cities begins on the one hand, new "back to the land" movement on the other.
  • Full-on collapse in Gulf and possible wars involving Saudis and their neighbors.
  • US oil consumption drops as oil producers hold on to their supplies for domestic use or trading with preferred partners. Bankrupt public unable to replace vehicles on a large scale and begin using public transit or their feet to travel.
  • Ongoing collapse in consumer economies and declining tax base reduces R&D spending to focus on defense and energy. Loss of polar ice-cap results in bonanza to explore for Arctic oil. Canada benefits from global climate change and begins to assert military power in a frontier called "The Far North."
  • US federal and state governments belatedly, despite rage from right-wing political groups, begin to adopt some aspects of European urban planning, green energy, and car-free lifestyles.
  • Most freight moved by rail; most perishable food locally grown. Homesteading to farm the nation's biggest growth industry, along with production of alternative energy sources.
  • National electric grid wobbly and failing; local power off the grid replaces semi-monopolies of power companies, but energy remains scarce.
  • High technologies, car ownership, and access to health care increasingly an object of class warfare. VR remains a popular curiosity.
  • A bankrupt US government, increasingly bereft of naval power as Nimitz-class carriers are retired one by one, cannot contest Russian, Chinese, Canadian, Indian and European wrangling in the Arctic Ocean over oil. Real chance of global war over remaining oil fields.
  • Europe, India, Russia, China, and America cope with climate and fossil-fuel refugees as Middle East, Central Asian, and Mexican economies collapse.
  • US Medicare and Social Security "safety nets" collapse. High technology not a primary concern of most individuals.
  • Human population begins to decline from disease, war, and famine in much of the world.
  • Barring massive burning of coal, simpler lifestyles and localism lead Carbon Dioxide levels in earth's atmosphere to stabilize, but rapid climate change remains under way for at least a century.
So, Transhumanists, let's hope you are correct in your optimism about humanity's inventiveness.

Perhaps climate change and oil depletion will trigger the sort of innovation we saw during WWII or the Space Race, but I doubt it; the Transhumanist vision does not acknowledge Homo Sapiens' propensity for bloodshed, tribalism, and pure chaos that erupts when scarcity prevails. How do we avoid the worst of these changes? That would be lovely to know, but as Kunstler also notes, "We know we have to go somewhere. We know that something like history is leaving us behind. We have no idea how to get to a new place."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Elgin Park: A Virtual World in Photos

Research Building parking lot 1958
Location: New York Times Web Site

Photos Courtesy of Michael Paul Smith's Flickr site

We usually think of virtual worlds in terms of avatars and special software. I've run across a popular virtual world that requires neither: one needs only a Web browser and nostalgia.

The Times reports how Michael Paul Smith's images of an imagined town, Elgin Park, have attracted a large audience at the photo-sharing site. Smith arranges die-cast cars from the Danbury Mint in settings that evoke Postwar, pre-Vietnam America, a time whose sunset I dimly recall and that often appears in my dreams.

Why the popularity? Smith has a great sensibility for architecture and photography. He knows how to pose his vehicles. But my take is that many of Smith's followers share a desire with folks who become so involved in Second Life and other virtual worlds: a sense of control.

America in the mid 60s, for white men at least, was still a place in command of its destiny (mutual assured destruction being the megaton of an exception). Smith's images capture those urban settings; even the cast of light is perfect. By dwelling on the quotidian, he also captures life as those older than 40 recall it. It's the most distant era many of us could imagine wanting to return to: reasonably modern medicine, technology, and media. Personally, the image above takes me back to hours waiting for my dad while reading Jack Kirby's and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four and other Marvel comics in our family's Edsel, then Star Chief, then Bonneville. It was safe to be alone in the car as dad did business with other produce dealers in large brick warehouses that did their best to look "Space Age" like many other businesses of that era.
Orbit Ice Cream Stand -1959 Chevys

Then we stopped going to the moon, and we began driving Japanese vehicles. I'm not critiquing the second of those changes, but they are there as markers of the end of American techno-triumphalism. Jay Leno feels that way, in a piece that accompanies the story of Elgin Park. Leno notes that when Chrylser sent its turbine-powered car on a world tour in 1963, "In countries where people were still riding bicycles and donkeys, Americans were driving jets."

Just as Leno can build a new one-off jet car, in virtual worlds we can create content not--and importantly, no longer--possible in real life. We can return to a past that has been perfected or a future that could never be: future nostalgia, in fact. Is it that different from the image below?
Post Card Image

It's notable that Smith's photos lack people--who made that past so darned complex and doomed it to change. The convulsions of the 60s lay just beyond the range of these pictures.

It's also notable that the images of main street show a perfection that now has been lost to the hideous uniformity of suburban sprawl. Outback Steakhouse and its coast-to-cost homogenized cousins put The Rainbow Bar under, and Hegner's Paints got undercut by Home Depot and other blights on the cloned strips of America. Gradually, we've moved American commercial districts to uglier and uglier places than they inhabited in the methodical, human-scaled world that Smith depicts in 1/24 scale.

Smith's world is gone, but we have pictures. And if we cannot ever be dragon-slayers, vampires, rock stars, or I.M. Peis, we can at least have our avatars fill those roles.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Conference in Second Life Begins Today

Location: Ready to go to VWBPE

Time to put on a suit and look professional, in case any mainstream media show up for the Virtual Worlds: Best Practices in Education.

The schedule for Friday can be found here, and for Saturday here.

See you at VWBPE 2010. The picture above is from last year's event, where I toured Virtual Harlem.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pathfinder Linden Leaves

Pathfinder Linden
Location: Montclair State Amphitheater

I was setting up for Roundtable when this news came in:

Note from John Lester's e-mail this line: "Due to recent reorganizations at Linden Lab, my current position (Evangelist, Market Development) has ceased to exist. There are no alternative positions available to me, so as of March 12th I will be leaving the company."

One must wonder at this. Spin it how you wish, but Mark Kingdon has said very little about the role of education in SL.

To lose Pathfinder, who spearheaded the U Texas system's large investment, is a heavy blow to those of us who teach with and about SL. Path's magic hat, which threw fireballs if you touched it, is a big hat to fill.

I'm hoping that Claudia and George Linden, long-time friends of educators, won't also be leaving.

CSU Chico Deans Visit Usher

Olivia, Viv, Me
Location: House of Usher Visitor Center

Olivia Hotshot teleported over to interview Viv Trafalgar and me about the university's House of Usher simulation. We hoped to give non-SLers, Deans from the CSU Chico campus looking "over Olivia's shoulder" an idea of what goes into a literary build in SL.

I even wore my best suit and gave the ravens a bone to keep them quiet.

CSU Chico Usher Tour: Prep

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rezzable's Valley of the Kings To Launch

 Heritage Key, Valley of the Kings

Location: Howard Carter's Camp, 1922

I've had a preview of what visitors see at the redone Valley of the Kings in Rezzable's Heritage Key virtual world. Viv Trafalgar's photoset at Flickr gives a sense of the changes at hand.

This is going to be stunning, in terms of visual appeal and educational potential. The quests, prizes, and improved performance all promise great things for educators. The new avatars and equipment at the Learning Center should deepen visitors' immersion in the experience.

I commend Rezzable's team for working so hard to address issues my class and others identified in the past year. Now the treasures of King Tut will be accessible to more visitors in a meaningful and entertaining way. Click over the Rezzable and begin exploring.

Friday, March 5, 2010

March Road Trip: Exile on Main Street

Location: Cruising Bay City

Armed with some serious iTunes and a desire to explore another continent, I set out. A search for "Route 66" led me to motorcycle-only regions I'd played in over a year ago, but I wanted something different: a slow cruise in a large American automobile.

In the Bay City cluster of sims, I found a branch office of ACCC Motors. For just under 1600 Linden Dollars, I put my hands on one of America's ultimate "lead sleds": a 1959 Cadillac ragtop, black of course. I'd wanted one since my early days in SL, when I had no money in-world and could never imagine actually putting money down on a bunch of code.

D'oh. Why the hell not? Reward content providers for work well done.

And what a beautiful sleek beast the '59 Caddy is! It handles like the barge it is in real life, but the Bay City sims are not for racing. The urban regions offer the perfect place to do the curbside crawl. Only six other avatars were on the first sim where, after some hunting about, I found a spot to rezz the huge auto.

At 25 prims in a built-up area, the big car did not handle sim-crossings with grace, even in first gear.
Construction Zone

A very nice moment of tangibility--that quality that makes SL seem like a place instead of a collection of servers--came at the Metaverse Land Sales: Bay City Office.

I cammed in to get pictures of the continent maps on the wall. This showed me the names of all the major land-masses; last month I'd gotten the old mainland's names, but I'd never seen the others named before.
First time Ive seen this

Then I drove slowly around, eying the architecture and appreciating the many funny road-signs.

For such a trip you need a few things. First, the perfect tunes, such as "Every Day is a Winding Road," by Sheryl Crow, "As the Crow Flies," by Richmond's own The Shiners, and "All Down the Line," by the Stones. Second, you need a sense of humor at the road-disasters that can occur to an uptight traveler.

The sim's sense of humor inspired me to end likewise.

End of the road

I think ACCC's party-barge Cadillac will go on an open-road trip, next.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3d Virtual Worlds: Gen X's Jetpack

Location: Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable

There's no handy generational label for those of us who, as kids, got a dose of 60s optimism that turned sour and dirty in the Malaise Era. We were, as tykes, promised vacations on the moon and jet packs. I'm still waiting, Dr. Von Braun. Then we found out the good doctor had built V2s with slave labor for Hitler's government.

I am proud to call myself a Gen Xer, though, technically, I should be a Boomer thanks to being the last-born of GI-era parents. Yet, if, like me, you came of age in the 70s, you really don't count as a Baby Boomer. After all, Boomers got the muscle cars, the good drugs, Woodstock, the free love. Gen X got the Ford Pinto, "Just Say No," disco, and HIV/AIDs. At least we had punk, grunge, and goth: the music of the disaffected.

As part of a generation that grew up hard and cynical, I worry when I hear clever members of my cohort wax poetic over the future of virtual worlds. We are, after all, their core audience: my Millennial students are too busy augmenting their real lives with constant contact via social networking to want to become a vampire lord, dragon, or Steampunk villain.

Now, a double-whammy.

First, is closing its doors; with a PC-only client, it was no place I ever went, but it did meet some of the guidelines I have long felt essential for a virtual world's mass adoption. Users with modest Windows systems would use There, not only those of us with fast machines and connections. I do, however, agree with "Eddi Haskell" (that puckish wag) in the comments about this at New World Notes:

Without sex, high end content creation, or some other activity to do, virtual reality in its current manifestations is not going to hold on to large audiences for an extended period. I am actually beginning to think that Blue Mars might not make it now because of the lack of usage- no one seems to be there except bots. I put on money on Second Life for making it long term.

Second whammy, specific to faculty users: Sarah Robbins, aka Intellagirl Tully in SL, noted in our Roudtable on March 2 that she, like me, believes that VWs would never attract mainstream faculty. Her reasoning and mine differ. Sarah finds that "faculty fall into a certain type. we like to show off. You can not show off or impress with qualifications" in SL.

I agree that faculty love to show off. I'd fall back on my major claim that the lack of real-world incentives and rewards stymies faculty engagement in virtual worlds, as does the difficulty of SL's and OpenSim's client software. My thinking along these lines has recently been influenced by reading "Press Enter to 'Say': Using Second Life to Teach Critical Media Literacy," by Jennifer deWinter and Stephanie Vie. They note that unlike games, where play is goal-oriented, in virtual worlds:

Players must learn to adapt to their environment, co-exist with other players, and demonstrate mastery of the game controls and rules. Instead of presenting the user with a pre-defined set of activities, however, this virtual world allows users to define their own goals through open play.

Will "open play" be enough for mainstream users? Will the curve be too steep for mainstream faculty? I'd say "yes" and "yes," but some developments in computer graphics or client friendliness may prove me wrong. At least, with the recent changes to Heritage Key, I do see one virtual world developer understanding that goals and rewards motivate players.

For academic researchers, the future looks bright. We already have years of data to mine. Sarah noted that when she began her PhD thesis, there were only three peer-reviewed articles on virtual worlds. That has changed, and even though there is no There there today, we have many other worlds to research. I just hope that for those who really are attached to 3D immersive virtual worlds, the attachment does not blind to their niche appeal for the foreseeable future.

Soon I'll run the transcript of all of Sarah's meeting with our group.

I'm not Dr. Von Braun, thank God. So I won't promise my fellow Xers a virtual jet pack. That is Linden Lab's job.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Stonehenge! In Rezzable's Heritage Key

Which Era to Choose??
Location: Collecting Logs, 2400 B.C.

I'd promised Viv Trafalgar that I'd spend time at the Valley of the Kings, and I'd feature a discussion of the HUD for exploring that region. Then I saw the Stonehenge teleporter at Heritage Key's travel center and...well, time-travelers are not supposed to be a cautious lot.

The teleporter took me to Rezzable's version of Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel, a passage to several epochs of Stonehenge's history. Now I wish I could do this in real life:

"Walk straight ahead to the center circle and select a teleporter to be transported to the Stonehenge time period of your choice."

I have a fascination with Neolithic Britain, especially the stone circles, so I had to abandon my quest to explore the Valley of the Kings and meet some of Stonehenge's builders. I began at the earliest era for the site on Salisbury Plain, the prehistoric forest of the Neolithic era. I saw bots in the distance and left my friendly druid guide behind, when I heard this:

"It looks like we've run into some builders! Go and talk to them to find out how the stones were moved. Take some time to explore the ancient forest, too...Help the builder repair his wagon and follow the 'Flora and Fauna' path to win items for your quest."

Both Flora and Fauna impressed me greatly...BIG animals back then!
Neolithic Wildlife
May I commit what historians call the "sin of presentism" to note how quickly prehistoric people destroyed the forests of ancient Britain? It seems that we moderns were not the only lunkheads...most of ancient Britain was thickly forested. No longer.

I ended up with a wearable falcon and a rather fanciful Druid's staff. I enjoyed helping the builder fix his roller for the Welsh Bluestones. I will use a similar technique, with logs, to move a 1000 pound truck box-body mounted on two I-beams at our family farm, though I'll have a John Deere backhoe and not oxen to help.

A serious footnote about how we learn from history: after reading Rodney Castleden's book about Stonehenge years ago, I moved a 10x5 foot garden shed on large PVC rollers. Call it my version of Redneck-Henge.

Already, Rezzable's Stonehenge build has incorporated the lessons of the Valley of the Kings, and it promises to equal in depth the redone VoK area or the promise of the Nile palace that Viv has mentioned to be under construction.
Give the man a log!

The build is worth walking for the lush forest prim-eval (sorry, I could not resist that) done with painstaking detail by Rezzable's team. I really felt in another time.

If only Iggyo Heritage could lose the duck walk. Animation override in the works, Rezzable?

Incidentally, how DID I get through a Stonehenge post without ONE Spinal Tap reference?

Go by the Web site from Rezzable and see if you are ready to stand among the stones. Then download the client software and go exploring!