Monday, January 31, 2011

Four Years in Second Life. What Now?

Location: Montclair State University Virtual Campus

I've been setting out virtual furniture for a group of technologists from a major US aerospace & defense contractor who will be speaking at the next VWER meeting. Their firm is doing some amazing things with virtual worlds, mostly in OpenSim but also with technology that William Gibson would have predicted in Neuromancer : exoskeletons, VR rigs for antiterrorist training, and more.

Meanwhile, consumer-level VR interfaces make halting but continued progress. The Wii and Kinect are first steps to a future when such technology could meet  changing norms about being in virtual spaces. Even partial immersion "creeps out" too many of my peers and students. But what if, as Edward Castronova claims in Exodus to the Virtual World, norms slowly begin to change? Then we might experience something like Gibson's Matrix or Stephenson's Metaverse.

I don't plan to be in-world 24/7, but I'd like the option to be a tourist in such spaces, from time to time.

Linden Lab has been an early pioneer here, and though I've said intemperate things about them in the past couple of years, it's been more out of disappointment for what might have been. Perhaps we'd have all been better off without the media-storm in 2006 and 2007. It made us dream too big too soon. Now, however, that early optimism has changed to a balance of weariness and hard work. My colleagues are divided on the future of 3D immersive worlds. Some suspect they'll be a niche forever. Others, citing trends among younger Millennials, claim they will make the revolution to build a 3D Web happen.

I hope so. Though I like the older Millennials I teach, they are too serious and career-driven to start a revolution, and they lack enough experience with open-ended play to imagine one. They don't turn off their hive of social networking long enough to look deeply inside. They are always in a hurry. But they are nice kids. I worry about them when they get older and life throws them some curve-balls.

I hope their younger siblings show us all a few new tricks.

Whatever happens, as I look back over four years, my colleagues, friends, and I have been pioneers on the edge of what is possible with our computers. I don't feel like an SL newbie any more.

Are SL years like dog years? I blew through my rezzday without realizing it. I'm sorta over that.

Am I feeling charitable or could LL still be masters of this new reality? If not, they sure as hell gave us a good ride at times. I hope the new CEO can keep the torch lit and the ride will continue.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Living in Gibson's Future? Close Enough to Be Scary.

Location: Midpoint of Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis
image credit: Barclay Shaw

The students in my first-year seminar may not understand, for a book published before they were even born, how William Gibson's Neuromancer not only shook up the genre of science fiction but also helped spawn a revolution in how those building the Web and its applications regard information

When I created a Second Life account in 2007, I left it an open question, in the "first life" tab for the avatar, as to whether Gibson's future would be realized in SL. Now I have the feeling that my question needed a broader scope: has Gibson's future been realized in both the worlds of, to use his dichotomy, meat and mind? If anything SL tries hard to be Gibsonian but fails: no one is as immersed as Case is in the novel, nor, for that matter, Molly and Armitage in their own part of futurity.

Mostly, however, Gibson got things close enough to scare me. As Egypt's government shuts down Internet access and cell-phone services, I recognize an eerie parallel to Wu's idea of a Master Switch that did not exist in 1984, when Neuromancer appeared. Gibson envisioned a more open Net than we have or that Wu believes we might get, but Gibson conceded that the "spiral arms of military systems" (52) would be forever beyond the reach of loners like Case.  They still are.

Yet using free public software, a million disenfranchised loners have united to topple Egypt's government, and at the time of writing this they may get their wish.  The keepers of those spiral arms, the Egyptian government, like their counterparts in Iran a few years back, know that their foes need cell telephony and Facebook to organize.

The rest of the world can only sit back and watch the chaos and, in Saudi Arabia, the government may be patting itself on the back for shutting out Facebook not so long ago.

But if Gibson were actually prophetic, then other aspects of his future should be closer to our door than the streets of Cairo.

Zaibatsus and Archologies

Put a Fuller Dome over many exurban gated communities in the US and Western Europe and you'd have the residential component of Neuromancer's way of life for the megacorporations: happy corporate employees going to their desks and conference rooms to plan and build a world to maximize a company's return on investment. Shopping and entertainment are only at a small remove, along the suburban sprawl, from the home cocoons. Only cheap oil has meant that workers drive to various destinations, instead of living and working and shopping together in the same place.

What would an arcology look like? There is one very Gibsonian building at the Web site of Yanko Design.  Called NOAH (New Orleans Arcology Habitat) it evokes the end-times of a next Big Storm and the sense of heroic futurism that the megacorps might project in a post-governmental world.  The comments on the proposal fascinate me: techno-dread and triumphalism characterize the remarks.

Following the logic of governmental minimalists and libertarians in the United States, whose voices are loud these days, a future where self-defining communities evolve into self-governing ones may not be so far-fetched. At the consensual level, it may already be as close as one's neighborhood covenant.

But the coming of Corporate Man (and Woman) has concurrently meant an increased stratification of wealth in US communities. Bruce Sterling once quipped that the 1980s dawned not only as the first American decade that seemed like science fiction but also a return to a neo-Victorian world with social-Darwinist conditions for citizens. How did that vision, crystallized in Neuromancer, pan out?

What follows is less critical than it might seem. In fact, as I'll note, I'm not sure it's ever been otherwise, except for its sheer scale. In 2007, the 1% of American citizens controlled 43% of financial wealth and 35% of net worth. The title of the report where I gathered this, "Who Rules America," gave an ideological slant that made me a little doubtful about the lack of bias by Professor Domhoff, so I found another source.

The US Census Bureau's report,"A Brief Look at Postwar U.S. Income Inequality" paints a picture not unlike Dumhoff's:
The long-run increase in income inequality is related to changes in the Nation’s labor market and its household com- position. The wage distribution has become considerably more unequal with more highly skilled, trained, and educated workers at the top experiencing real wage gains and those at the bottom real wage losses.
There's more at the Census Web site. I become a little less convinced, then, that Dumhoff is riding a hobby horse of leftist angst. One should pause before numbers like these from Domhoff: "Of all the new financial wealth created by the American economy in that 21-year-period, [1983-2004] fully 42% of it went to the top 1%."

Even so, the distribution of wealth before 1983 was not one of which I'm proud, given my belief that a large and politically active middle-class of property owners, such as all those returning GIs in 1945, can be an excellent shield against the sort of governance (and lack of it) Gibson portrays.   Citizens like the GIs who built the neighborhood were I now live, of modest ambitions and demeanor, have historically been  eager to protect their families and thus they've supported strong policing and orderly neighborhoods. Except for the turbulence of 1968, America has never had Egyptian-style chaos in the streets: Egypt has no middle class any longer, by all accounts.

Sadly, after 2008 and the financial meltdown, many more Americans have been thrown out of our middle class. Each foreclosure and failed company could take us a step closer to a neo-Victorian form of income inequality that characterizes Cyberpunk's view of the future.  And I doubt that all of the millions of dispossessed will leave their bank-seized homes peacefully. 2011 may be an interesting year.

Console Cowboys

But housing, like travel to Case, is a "meat thing." On the mind front, the lone cyber-cowboys of Gibson's world have not emerged. Wikileaks' revelations took a team of dedicated "hacktivists" to accomplish. At the same time, another aspect of current hacking comes straight from Neuromancer.

The cyber-attack on Iran's nuclear installations may have set back the nation's bomb-building program for some time. In a world like Gibson's, a zaibatsu might have stopped a rogue nation, given the failure of the US and Soviet governments after Operation Screaming Fist.  In our actuality, Israel and the US and who knows else might have launched the attack.  Thus we've moved further along than Gibson's world, technologically.

The Soviet computer centers Armitage mentions had to be attacked with Special-Forces hacker-operatives sent in on microlight gliders. In our world, Iran's systems are tied to the global Internet. So are ours, and both China and the US are quietly jockeying, behind the scenes, to develop cyberwar teams. If our nations ever go to war, Internet services and all its dependent systems--power grids, air-traffic systems, banking--will become legitimate domestic targets.

Street Samurai

On the "meat" front, our Molly might be named "Mike."

Burly men doing legitimate (and, at times, dirty) deeds for whatever Blackwater is now called, and firms like it, does not quite have the sex-appeal of Gibson's razorgirl.

At the same time, for this reader it would have been impossible in the early 80s to imagine Mercs, and that is what all "private security contractors" are, Mercenaries, enjoying the cultural acceptance they now enjoy. Many of my fellow citizens get a bit queasy on this subject, but for the past decade the US government has relied on Mercs to do jobs we do not wish to task to our armed forces or that require manpower we simply do not have in uniform without drafting college-aged kids.

In the 80s, except for Soldier of Fortune readers, the use of mercenaries by our government would have stirred widespread outrage. Now, if I may risk a generalization, with a 24/7 new cycle the attention of the public appears to move faster than it did 26 years ago, to the latest tragedy, scandal, or political circus.  Meanwhile, private security companies have limited accountability to US or international law. They are true Gibsonian figures of the "interzone where art wasn't quite crime, crime not quite art" (44).  Put in "law" for "art" and you have our situation.

Meanwhile, poor Molly. I don't think Gibson meant her to become a meme, but she has.

I'm glad we don't have razorgirl mercs walking the night cities of our world, but Molly can be found elsewhere: she's the badass sex-object of a hundred video games and action / adventure films. Hollywood understands male lust for these tough babes with guns and blades. Molly scares and attracts the boys, and I'm sure that more than a few male readers empathize with Case when he gets to enjoy her pleasures.

Naturally, one recent attempt to cast a film based upon the book would have featured Milla Jovovich as Molly: Resident Evil's killer star would get to put on the mirror eye-inserts. It's that way in any number of films or games where the strong woman is just as much a sex object as any gatefold playmate.  As my students will see when they get further into the book, there's that dark and disgusting desire out there to have a "meat puppet."  That technology is perhaps the most frightening of the book and, like organ-markets and stim-sim sets, it remains possible but not part of our lives.

We have Microsoft as a multinational, not microsofts that one puts into a skull-plug to learn a new skill. And the best we can do for Stim-Sim is the current 3D craze. Merge it with a Wii or Kinect, and we may approach something like watching through Tally Isham's eyes in her latest episode.

Better Living Through Bioengineering?

When students on campus trade Ritalin to do better on exams, yes, we live in a cyberpunk world. My students are afraid of our "street" and, whipped up the ladder by well meaning parents and educators like me, do their best to avoid it whatever the emotional cost.

At least, if any of us do wind up on the streets with between two and three million American homeless, we do not have to cope with illegal dealers in pituitary glands or black clinics in the worst part of town, ready to roll us for our kidneys.

In scope if not depth, Gibson was spot on about the culture of body modification, when teens have elective cosmetic surgery and their parents get Botox regularly. A single earring was a novelty on a man in 1984, and potentially a dangerous one. Now tats and piercings are common.

A dermatologist, who helped my mother with a degenerative eye disorder that required a monthly Botox injection, told me he'd given up on really iffy surgery that could land him in court. Instead, his income came mostly from vanity, that ready fix of Botox to keep the bathroom mirror lying to his patients every morning.

Verdict: Close Enough to Scare Me

Image Source: Unknown

In the end, we don't, and probably never will, have orbiting colonies of Rastas or French spas run by a maniacal and inbred family. I doubt that our planet has enough fossil fuels that are cheaply available to sustain enough wealth to make dreams like Richard Branson's, of cheap space tourism, happen. If I'm wrong, I'll be too old to get the ride to orbit I've wanted since I saw a Gemini launch in the mid 1960s.

In other regards, however, I'm happy to say that Gibson got a great deal wrong. May it continue to be so, because what he predicted correctly has been frightening enough.  Ours is a harder-edged world than it was in 1984, when the Cold War raged on.  And the technologies of interconnection empower lots of individuals. Al Quaeda, not the Panther Moderns, uses the Internet but the violence engendered is still the stuff of nightmare.

So, Bill, thanks for all of the bad dreams. You really invented a genre and, in some ways, a world.

Work Cited:

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Under a Virtual Moon: Mooning Around

New Moon Wishes Ritual - Jan 6th

Location: Main Ritual Circle, Gaia Rising, Second Life
Between the time of the second and third posting in this series, Iggy suggested a weekly update on Paganism (or Neo-paganism) and I agreed. Seemed easy enough. I participated in-world regularly. So, this would just be a matter of jotting down a few notes. Then the traditional Christian holiday hit with snows, a virus, and a visit from my daughter (which was a redeeming action). And, then, I don't know. Sometimes I just don't log in.

January 6th I participated in New Moon Wishing with the Rising Moon group. Aoife Lorefield, who led the ritual, talked about the new year and the dominant astrological influences. Aoife is particulary good at welcoming late comers and dealing with technological glitches. The ritual went well.

Now that the moon is waning, I'm beginning to see the results of that wishing. Yin wishing is a lot like praying constructed through ritual. I tend to forget most of my wishes, if I'm lucky. One always seems to stand out and haunt me all month. This time is was my healing wish. And I seem to have been favorably answered.

January 5th I participated in a, uh, line energy healing with The United Healers of Second Life. It was tacked on to the end of a discussion, led by Andre Farstrider, about raising energy. About eight avatars lined up and we projected energy to the AV in front of us, imagining our hands on their shoulders. The person at the front of the line got the benefit of all the energy. After a few minutes that person went to the end of the line and so on. When it was my turn, I immediately felt the crush and like I was about to burst. Discovered I was resisting and allowed the flow instead. I didn't stay at the front of the line very long.

Unlike me, the pagan groups got right back to it after the holiday, so the schedule is full, starting with Guided Healing Meditation tomorrow at 7 AM (SL) and then Imbolc on Gaia Rising at 11 AM. There's a second Imbolc ritual on Sunday at 6 PM. The Sunday Anam Turas pagan chat on Gaia Rising meets at 10 am.

There's lots more happening I'm not reporting here. Hopefully I'll get back into my SL routine soon. The potential to participate in three Imbolc rituals tomorrow (one in-world, two off-world) should help.
The seasonally decorated altar.
I wore my formal robes to enforce my commitment. The sun set during the ritual. The atmosphere effects were quite lovely.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Born Too Early For Your Job?

Goodbye Richmond
Location: Richmond Island

As I took a last look at Richmond Island (today Linden Lab takes back the parcel) I also opened my reader to look at the SLED list.

A PhD candidate just posted to the list that she feels lost in the job market. Her research in the area of virtual worlds is not leading to the sort of career she'd like, as she reads over job listings:
Not one post has come by that has emphasized a knowledge/commitment to virtual worlds, simulations or gaming. I'm starting to almost see my dissertation as a hindrance to getting a job which hurts because I love the subject so much. Am I ahead of my time?
I've had this conversation with others working on VWs or writing dissertations. It does seem that we are using a technology that has not "taken off" yet.  I'd hate to see such bright folks become Blackboard (should be "bored") admins for some college when there are worlds out there to build.

Perhaps the revolution in virtual worlds with user-generated content (UGC) will come from the sorts of efforts John Lester discusses with Jeff Young, in a recent article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Or perhaps the revolution will come from the private sector, when game designers move beyond casual 2D games with limited UGC to something more intriguing.

But it's very hard to wait for the future to arrive.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Looking Backward: Skin Trade For Iggy, 2007

Old Dudes!

April 15, 2007 5:00 PM

Location: Lila’s Skin Shop

I came here seeking baldness, because I heard that this store sold “Old Dude” looks for avatars. I’m stunned by what I found.

Lila is a designer of mostly female “skins”—wrappers one can place on a blank avatar, like my handy gorilla-suit, to completely change one’s appearance.

And what skins Lila had on offer!  They were a frat boy’s dream-date, straight out of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition.

I walked past pictures of the nude female “skins” on big posters, showing skin-tone and other attributes. 

A male avatar was nearby, and he only seemed to be ogling the merchandise.  Soon another guy showed up in just a pair of jeans and a male “demo skin” costing only one-quarter of a cent in real money.  Demos work just like full-priced skin (about 7 US dollars), except it is branded all over with…you guessed it…DEMO.

There was not a woman in sight.  A cheerful little sign told players to “get nekkid” and try on demo skins in the store.  Um, not me.  I needed a changing room.

I bought two (male) demos and went back to UR Island to try them on.

Ironically, the “Old Dudes” skin does not permit baldness.  But one called “Ben” does, and with lots of tweaking, I found myself oddly creeped out. Except for the lack of gray in the beard, Iggy now looks a lot like I will, after my pre-summer buzz-cut.
Iggy 2.0

Iggy's 2011 notes: I've added Dreadlocks to Iggy, but he's basically the same avatar I had in 2007, wearing the "Ben" skin. Lila's skin has aged well and still looks decent when compared to those of newer male avatars.  Or is that that males still have a disadvantage, and most innovations go to female avatars?

Sadly, Lechium Candour, who ran Lila's Skins and has been an SL resident since 2005,  no longer appears to have an in-world store. The last location is now a police-equipment provider with cop-cars, guns, and a firing range. Whee.

No results came up in Marketplace when I searched under her name. I dropped her an IM and a notecard, and if I hear back, I'll report on it here.

In real life, I have moved on, too. I shave my head not seasonally, but at least once per week. My beard is now as gray as "Ben Senior's," alas. No dreads have sprouted, yet.

My "Looking Backward" posts are aggregated here, if you want to see the fool I made of myself in 2007.   

Friday, January 21, 2011

Iggy & The Crypt Rats: Adding Sounds At Jokaydia Grid

Front Door
Location: hiding virtual oil can

No, I'm not starting a virtual Punk band. But I do need to record a rat squeaking.

Old doors creak. They simply must. And one of the most wonderful aspects of Second Life's House of Usher simulation was its sound: doors creaked, screams filled the air at opportune moments, rats squeaked in the family crypt. Clumsy props-handlers shot themselves with virtual pistols when an actor called for a distant gunshot...we won't go there.

Unlike that cacophony, Jokaydia Grid's new House, until today, has been silent. I'm not a sound wizard or a scripter, but thanks to a UK site I found, I've gotten a few good sounds to begin making Usher more immersive an experience.

First hat-tip (in a week full of them) is to the blog Three Guides in Byzantium. John Lester put us on to this site at a recent VWER meeting, and in checking the validity of the links for a transcript, I hit the blog. Post at the top when I checked? No, not the one about sex in OpenSim, silly.

How to make a creaky door!

This was a large moment for me. I copied the script, visited the site referenced, The Freesound Project, and downloaded several .wav files of 10 seconds or fewer. Both the script and sound file are under creative-commons licenses for noncommercial use, so I wrote an attribution notecard for the script & sound, then added it to Usher's front door.

Sound has been missing for me, and when the door creaked for the first time on Nevermore, I felt that magic sensation of immersion. Now, without overdoing it, I'll make more squeaky, creaky, crunchy, clunky, and squishy sounds suitable for Poe's world.  Rat-sounds were not to be found at the Web site, but I may drag my recorder to the lab of a colleague in Neuroscience. He has lots of rats.

How do you make them squeak for a visitor?  Maybe I should start a band.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thanks to Dale: A Sense of Place

Sansara Road Map
Location: Continent Hopping

Dale Innis has published an excellent free script (I stuck it in my left shoe) that with a click, tells avatars their coordinates and the virtual continent they are on.

Here's a link to Dale's blog post and his script. Tophat tip to Lalo Telling for letting us know about this. I like the fact that SL has this sense of place. It just got deeper.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January Road Trip: Better But Not Great

Crisis? What crisis?
Location: Wellington Road, Jeogeot Continent

Mostly quiet on the road. I do give a hat-tip to Linden Lab for trying to fix a long-standing problem.

Despite the improvements in sim-crossings that Tateru reported, she's also correct that it remains far too slow for what I've always craved: a road rally with a dozen vehicles. While the solitary motorist can put up with the lag of hand-offs between sims, it's not something anyone who wanted to compete online would tolerate. I managed about eight sim crossings, and six of them worked well. Keep in mind that I was in first gear and doing no more than 25 miles per hour.

The crossing speed is good enough for my purposes: seeing what other SL residents have been doing. I met only a few residents, one of whom I spotted just before I nearly ran her down. A Chinese SLer, she was out looking for freebie skins and clothing.
Chinese resident
My landmarks were  old, from the days when I sent students to freebie stores or took them myself (students not wanting to spend a single "real dollar" in SL). So were hers, and she reported it harder to find decent freebies in world. I don't know what the downturn in in-world commerce has done to this once-thriving market.

On the other hand, resident humor continues. Here's the profile for the creator of the 1903 Oldsmobile I spotted in Tieut sim:

Omicron Llewellyn has taken a vow of silence until he can import the sculpts on the screen into the SL.  Sorry for the inconvenience. Let him build, let him destroy, leave him to struggle with his own hubris, and for goodness sake, buy him a pint.  Do not try to save him, he is what he is, unrepentantly. The common denominator in all his failed relationships is him.

I think this perhaps the best profile I've seen in a bit. I IMed him, telling him that I wanted a copy of the car. Given the sim performance, even with the improvements in speed, an '03 Olds may be my next SL ride. I've got the Steampunk clothes to look good in a horseless carriage.
1903 Olds Horseless Carriage

In addition to oodles of for-sale mainland plots, I found one of the Bot-cars that the Alphaville Herald reported some time back terrorizing SL's roadways. This 70s pimpmobile Cadillac, owned by AnnMarie Oleander, was stranded in a ditch by the roadside. Here's her profile info:

I am running self navigating vehicles on roads, railroads and waterways.  Sometimes they get caught in no-script land off the road.

Bot Car

This is an interesting technology, fun to dodge if I run across them, but I'd rather see more avatar-driven rides in SL.

More soon about what I find down the ever-more lonesome roads of SL.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Apple Without Steve?

Location: Reading Tea Leaves

Apple's die-hard faithful probably let out a collective moan today. Steve Jobs' decision to take medical leave sent shivers through not only computer users but also the entire stock market.

I wish Mr. Jobs a speedy recovery and a long life. While the man has been accused of draconian management practices, he did help usher in the personal computing revolution. Even if Steve Wozniak was the engineering genius behind the early Apple computers, Jobs' marketing brilliance made graphical user interfaces and the Cult of Apple happen.

It was a different sort of company from the upstart PC makers of the early 80s or the stumbling and arrogant behemoth that was IBM in that decade; if the competition consisted of geeks, Apple seemed run by artists and madmen of the sort I enjoy meeting for drinks.  I could imagine Apple's people chatting up the fire-breather and magician in San Francisco's Vesuvio, one of planet Earth's best bars, after shopping for poetry books at City Lights. IBM's folks would be (massive yawn) golfing with senators. Microsoft's people would show up at the bar and try to look hip, all the while looking like khaki-and-polo-shirted  tourists.

But I digress: my preference for bohemians over boring business and I.T. types is not news, but perhaps this is exactly how Apple fooled chumps like me into thinking the firm hip and not merely a very clever marketing idea wrapped around some elegant and useful technology. It sure snared cultural creatives as fanboys, to market the company's products to friends. I'm sure I convinced a dozen folks to try the Mac OS over the years. Not a one screamed at me later, a testimony to how well our Macs did, and do, work.

More Than Macs: How Apple Did "Think Different"

The history of the firm relates quite well to ideas from my class on the history of Cyberspace. Jobs will be remembered, when he leaves this planet to compare notes with John D. Rockefeller and Howard Hughes, in one of two ways.

First, Apple's CEO might be what what Tim Wu in The Master Switch calls a Defining Mogul.  That will be the case if Apple's closed system for handheld computing comes to dominate the future of Internet use.  You will get what Verizon, AT&T, and Apple decide you get to see or do. And I agree with Wu's well supported "central the United States, it is industrial structure that determines the limits of free speech" (121). I suspect this revelation about the first amendment applying to Congress, as in "Congress shall make no law..." and not to employers or ISPs, surprised my students as much as it did me.

On the other hand, if an open system dominates, Jobs might be recalled as a would-be monopolist who failed, despite a miraculous comeback in the late 1990s. I'm not sure which future I want. I used to fear Microsoft. I was hoping Macs would remain boutique systems for picky people like me. I also prefer German cars or pre-1973 Detroit Muscle. They are fancy fun, but they both run on our roads with boring cars. If my Mac could work with the sea of boring Windows boxes, what harm that?

Now, however, I am beginning to fear Apple.

My ownership of a handful of Mac systems since the dark years of the mid 90s shows how well they hold up. Our household iMac G5, now six years young, will soon enjoy a long retirement as our DVD player / media box for downloading films. Some child in Alaska is probably still using the G3 iMac I shipped up there, years ago, after an eBay auction.

Inside the latest iMac, however, there's a story that goes to the heart of Jobs' vision for Apple.  Unlike its predecessors, the new iMac's CPU has no user-serviceable parts aside from upgrading the RAM. This has long been Jobs' favored tactic. If the Apple II of Wozniak's day invited tinkering, the first Mac in 1984 became its antithesis: to open the case was the void the warranty!

Apple has played this push-pull game with its hardware since that time. As a tinkerer, I found this exasperating as my friends using Windows or Linux would build computers out of spare parts and make them do cool things.  Nowadays, however, we old geezers with desktop boxes are giving way to the iEverthing generation, who carry their devices around incessantly and don't tinker. It's about the app, not the device, to these kids. And Jobs--who not only could recognize but also create markets--knew this best of all.  The Mac's established niche among school teachers and artists and graphics designers and video professionals and crazy professors is, after all, somewhat limited. Apple did not even try to top Dell's game in Henrico County, where the middle schools will give up their Macs soon for PCs, just as the high schools have done. Though the Macs last longer and are more robust when dropped by little kids, Dell offered a better price on service. Apple declined, I suppose, betting that kids with iPhones and iPads will eventually want Macs, anyhow. Or that iPads might replace laptops in schools, and with the right Verizon contract Apple would best anything Dell could offer.

The educational discount, I just noticed, for the iMac I am considering comes to all of 100 bucks. It was once twice that. Second Life folks...does this sound at all familiar?

This reality suits Steve Jobs fine: his portable devices, selling in volumes we Mac zealots could only dream of in the late 1990s, are closed in ways Job could never manage with the Macintosh in any form.  We'd pry them open.

Try that with an iPhone. Maybe you have better eyesight than I do. Besides, even if  you do that, Apple's revenue-stream will switch from selling you a $2000 iMac (high end: I like my computers pimped) to selling you a $200 phone with a long-term contract that includes a cut for Apple with each App you buy and, I'm guessing, a bit of the monthly take that goes to the ISP carrying your data.

That's a sweet deal for all the corporations involved.

Consumers might not care, as long as the service is reliable, but as with AT&T before the 1984 breakup, with the iOS Steve's firm can dictate which apps appear, or do not, on the system. The Mac OS lets you write software; its relative openness, based on its UNIX underpinnings, compared to Windows has been great for those who had the skill to develop applications.

But What if Steve Loses (Again)?

Jobs lost the desktop market to Microsoft because he could not see what Bill Gates saw: that the software was the key to market saturation, even good-enough software. Most Windows users wanted the apps, and they could care little about the OS as long as it worked. I know that described me when I used Windows 3.1, 95, and 98 before making the Mac OS my primary system.

Could Jobs make a similar mistake today? As Google becomes more and more a competitor for the iPhone's and iPad's apps market, Apple could repeat its 1980s blunders. At the same time, it has some advantages it never had then.  Moreover, might Google  be forced into a more closed system? As I explained to my class today, Google must use the same broadband "tubes" (thanks, Sen. Stevens) to move data to one's computer or phone.

I'd feel better if I could get an Android OS tablet (what I'm waiting for) with service from any of dozen ISPs. Perhaps if some new and distruptive wireless service emerges, offering FIOS-level speeds without a cable, we could have 100 Verizons or Comcasts vying for our telecom dollar.

But in my region, it will be AT&T and Verizon carrying the data. As long as principles of Net Neutrality continue to hold for these big telecoms, in theory iPad / Phone competitors could run most anything and undermine Apple's closed-but-reliable model for access to content online.

If that happens, someone will have stolen Apple's message from the famous "1984" advertisement. I offer it here in case my students have never seen it:

I'm hoping for this outcome, even if it means that in a few years, I'll lose my Macs as Apple fades away (again). Maybe for my main computer I'll be running an admittedly sleek Sony Vaio with a Google OS on board and I'll have lots of options, including synching data with a tablet or smart phone. Maybe I'd even make peace with the old bogeyman, Microsoft. Windows 7 and clunky compared to the current version of the Mac OS, but it is the first version of Windows in a long time that I find compelling and rather intuitive.  Perhaps on a really tricked out machine...

Either way, if I can open the computer's case and change the hard drive out or upgrade the processor, better still.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Road Trip Plans in Second Life

Willowdale cruise, 1
Location: Fake Garage

My jaded ears rose up, like a bored terrier's at the sight of an escaped hamster, when I read  Tateru Nino's announcement that Linden Lab has done some work to increase the speed of simulator crossings. I'll give credit where it's due: this was needed badly. Nice work from the new CEO, who has a gaming background.

I'll just have to dust off the vehicles for a road trip.

Novella's commentary on a recent post stung in just the right way: I need to stop snarking, because life has been good in OpenSim and I've used a lot of what I learned in Second Life. With better prospects for road-trips again in "the old country," I might just get back to what I used to enjoy in SL: seeing what others are making.

And unlike my real Mini Cooper S, the fake one is paid for!  Let's motor!  I'll post the results here soon.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Artist Sells Herself as Commodity: Iggy Buys Her Head

Artist for Sale
Location: Getting Ahead in Second Life

When a post by Miso Susanowa caught my eye today, I had to participate, if only to use a groaner of a pun I've always loved.

Miso is selling herself, a bit at a time, at the University of Western Australia's 3D Open Art Challenge.

Needing a place for my spare dreadlocks, I bought her head for 300 Linden Dollars.

Thus the artist in SL these days: as Linden Lab turns its back on the builders who made the world possible, the remaining customers and their creations are, indeed, commodities.
Not So Subtle Message
Well done, Miso. I promise we'll never play soccer with your head.

Get over to the show [direct teleport link] before Miso and her secrets (there's one in each body part) are purchased.
At Iggys Gallery
I'm not telling a thing. The secret in Miso's head is between me and her.

Big Visions, Little Visions, Second Life's Failure

Gone to his Head
Location: Hollering, at the Rebel Yell

I've written, at the VWER site, a long analysis of Second Life's failure to become the sort of disruptive technology that Philip Rosedale envisioned.  I'm thinking of Tim Wu's term for technologies that create entire new industries building a system to replace older forms of communication.

Other than a smug image of my avatar and a Philip-Rosedale parody-bot at the Burn 2.0 arts event, I think--think--I kept my snark in check.

I hope my claims about SL are not mere sour grapes over the end of Richmond Island in SL and the departure of so many educators from that technology.  It's premature to say we victors write the histories, because educators are still using SL and will, while OpenSim is very much a pioneer's environment. Moreover, Linden Lab might still recapture a niche market they are losing now and make their metaverse the standard-bearer.

That I doubt. Read the article and I'll explain why.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wu's "Cycle" and Founding Moguls

Location: Using Google's System to Talk About It

This post begins a series to coincide with my Spring 2011 course, Cyberspace: History, Culture, Future.

We begin the class reading Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise & Fall of Information Empires. I've loved Wu's narratives about the "defining moguls" in various industries. In my title I misused the term "founding" and that is not exactly apt. Such men may not found an industry but they do bring it to its apotheosis.  It's not accidental that Howard Hughes, whose company defined modern aerospace, continues to inspire Hollywood enough to get The Aviator made and released.

Such figures used to be called "Titans of Industry" in prewar America.  Either way, the metaphor is apt: Mogul emperors and pre-Olympian gods had one thing in common with these modern men: mere money has never been the primary goal or motivation. They are, Wu, insists, "a special breed" among the alpha-males and (today) alpha-females of our technocracy (29).

The mogul or titan of old desired power and domination, and their modern counterpart, "like a man who tastes combat for the first time, discovered his natural aptitude for industrial warfare" (Wu 29). No small wonder that they so interest Nietzschean me. I admire such fellows even when I dislike them: Steve Jobs made possible the amazing MacBook on which I compose this post. He also has a scorched-earth style of management that would make Kublai Khan nod in approval. Moguls are often brutes (and the titan Saturn ate his own children to avoid being deposed by one of them).

Adolph Zukor's and Mark Zuckerberg's names roll off the tongue, the similarities in vowel-sounds mimicking the same will to power that these men  brought to their innovations. Both Paramount and Facebook define a certain age of media. Competitors quake.

Then, of course, there is the fall of the Titans. In surveying the history of technology, it is common to find founders with Shakespearean flaws and, quite often, trace what began as heroic competition ending  in complacency, decadence, even madness. Aviator and Aerospace-industry legend Howard Hughes stands before me, an obsessive old man so terrified of germs, some urban legends say, that he put empty Kleenex boxes on his feet as he shuffled around his penthouses in various the Las Vegas hotels. Thus is the fate of many with imperial visions.

If any Second Life readers are still with me, I think you know who I'm talking about.  For my students, the question becomes this: what happens when a founder tries to build a system out of a disruptive technology?

Zukor managed to corral and cow the independent filmmakers and theater-owners who successfully battled The Film Trust. Out of that victory, Zukor and other winners made his system: we still use the world "Hollywood" to mean not just a place but a content-creator that is monolithic and quite often stodgy. Consider how every formulaic superhero film resembles the previous formulaic superhero film. We can thank Zukor and his peers for this.  But we can also thank them for some unforgettable moments in cinema: Ben Hur's chariot race, Dorothy's trip to Oz, A Streetcar Named Desire's heart-rending portrayal of Blanche DuBois by Vivian Leigh.

As for Facebook's Zuckerberg, it remains to be seen if his social network can become a fully fledged operating system for users, in the way that Google seems to be evolving. If so, we could have a ringside seat for a battle of systems, one that will influence our lives as much as the ascendancy of the Hollywood Studios, Microsoft's Windows OS, or Detroit's Big Three automakers.

Update  Jan. 13: I've clarified Wu's term for these men and added a properly MLA-cited direct quotation from Wu to add emphasis to my point (and to demonstrate proper integration of sources to students). Note to students that the first citation of Wu does not need his name with the page number; I already made clear the source's name. The second citation does take the page number because the source is not yet clear.  The same rules apply for paraphrase.

Work Cited:

Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Furnishing Usher: The Haunted Desk Drawer

Not so Empty
Location: Nevermore Sim

Getting over the loss of SL's House of Usher is easy when I have a new house to build. The outside has been mostly finished for a week.  Little details such as gargoyles and gutters remain to be added; the downspouts got imported from SL a few days back.

I want to build some furniture that has sliding drawers, so explorers of the simulation can sneak around behind the actors' backs and find hidden clues. I began with Madeline's writing desk. It features a desk body as one set of prims, a sliding drawer as another.

Finding the drawer-open script was not too hard. Modifying Bob Sutor's script, licensed under Creative-Commons for non-commercial projects, was not hard. All that needed to be done was changing the X or Y vectors after the desk ended up in its final location.

I built my desk out in the open, so I would not accidentally select parts of the house when linking or moving prims.  Then I took the desk into inventory, as two pieces, and found my spot inside.

The ghost appeared as soon as the desk was in place.

I clicked the sliding drawer and "BLAM!" it shot through the wall and ended out outside the house near the position where I'd made the desk. I rezzed another drawer, clicked it, and "BLAM!" off it went.

The exorcism was simple. When I rezzed the third drawer I reset the script and it worked beautifully. I'll soon give away full-perm copies at the Newbie Dome in Jokaydia Grid, with a note containing a link to this post and Bob's Web site, as well as a note about the conditions of his CC license. I'll toss in some TGA images of Victorian clutter: letters, envelopes, and invoices, for the right effect.
Writing Desk
I have aggregated my posts on building in virtual worlds here. Happy home improvements!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pulling Down The House of Usher: Manuscript Found In a Prim Bottle

My final letter
Location: Madeline Usher's Writing Desk

My Dear Edgar,

I write these words in haste before the doom that has befallen the House of Usher overtakes me.

I arrived in reply to Roderick Usher's urgent summons. And to think that this mansion was a vital, if troubled, place but a year ago. There remained no more than the shell of a ruined home when I made my uneasy way across the causeway!  And, like the shattered head of Shelley's poem, round its wreck the lone and level sands stretched far away into the primordial distance, an empty horizon of blue as though I were far above the earth.

After I plucked up my courage, I made my way into the House and ascended to the pitiful remains of the second story, where I found quill, ink, and paper to write this letter. Shattered bits of furnishings and structure dotted the landscape. What had become of the Ushers?  The family's parrot, an African Grey or perhaps Norwegian Blue, it being hard to discern in the fading light, greeted me.
No clues from Nevermore

"Awk! Run for cover! Run for cover! Blimey! Guv'nah Linden gets the island soon! He raised the rent! No more prims! Awk! Run for cover!"

Fed some strange hope by this warning, as well as by the bird's clever manner, I implored it, "Where are my friends, Roderick and Madeline? Shall I see them again in this wretched house?"

"Nevermore! Nevermore! S'blood run for it! Try OpenSim! Try OpenSim! Awk!"

In despair I looked for a way out, but an angel of destruction followed at my heels. I realized the fate of the upper stories of The House of Usher. As I explored, I began to hear the noises of stone grinding upon stone, and as I looked on, the last standing walls began to fall! Oh, the sound of breaking leaded glass, the heritage of the Ushers for many centuries, ground into dust! Oh, the rending of the floors to reveal the awful horror of the crypts below!

Then, a spirit came and made a dire warning.
A helpful spirit

"Traveler, flee this cursed place. My doom is to tarry here until the last prim has been taken and the curse placed upon this land by the Lindens enacted in full. You have a future before you, until the dreadful and dolorous day of doom, when you too shall rot in the hungry earth! Flee, fool, flee the Reaper for he is at your back this very instant! Flee!"

In some ghoul-haunted hysteria from the works of Byron, I stumbled into the crumbling and rat-specked remains of the Ushers' ancient crypts, hoping to find surcease from the incredible destruction above.
Unroofed Tomb
But there was to be no rest for my tormented spirit, alas!  The devastation of the House and all its heritage continued apace, stone by stone they crumbled and vanished into the deep places of the world, as if some cavalier god were putting them back into a cosmic inventory of loss of suffering.

Oh me! Oh Usher! But wait...

A flask of laudanum! I drank deeply, as the House continued its awful decomposition. Amid the swirling debris from happier days, I swooned as the drug eased my nerves...and my last vision of Usher was of Roderick and Madeline, silhouetted against a nightmare sky.
Roderick and Madeline: Farewel...
Shall I never awake from this delirium?  Make haste, Edgar, for I fear I am entombed with phantoms.

Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,

Ignatius Onomatopoeia, Esq.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Has it been really that long?

Location: Still out in the cold - frozen rock solid

Its almost two years now. Two years from the last days of a colourful time of weird experience, good humor and exploration, but also of deep friendship, loss and grief.

My time on the grid was a wild rollercoaster.

it opened a door into another world opened to me, giving me insights into the world of a bunch of the most amazing people I have ever met and I am still happy, that the contact to most of them is still as stable as it used to be in those days. It was a time of exploring, thinking and planning. We build things that were mostly useless, but that entertained us and brought people together that would normally would have run past each other in the highly unlikely event of meeting in the street anyways.

It broke the routine, was new and fresh and we gave a piece of ourselves to others offering them new insights on their current ways, maybe changing some thoughts for the better even.

We were silly and hilarious. We wore Gorillasuits paired with Russian uniforms, or raided jails to bust out family members only to stop on the village center for a square dance.

Under the sign of the hand we enjoyed an extension of our regular existences which enriched our lives in a way, which would have most likely never been occurred without SL.

But things were cruel too. People we thought we understood turned against us from one day to the next, disappeared without another word, or even worse died in real life never to be seen again and deeply missed.

The prejudice that SL would be some kind of game, still clings hard to the minds of people who haven't tried and understood it, yet i repeat it over and over again, "Second Life" has its name for a reason. We did not want to escape, run away or whatever those people tried to find as a reason for our using SL; no, we just extended our experience to an area normally locked to us.

Its almost two years now. Two years that also drove me nuts over and over again with Linden Lab not willing to act. Years of lost inventory, crappy server performance, money disappearing to nowhere, running around as Ruth and a lot of other problems that were never addressed and most likely never will be.

Since I am always having a hard time resisting Iggy's requests, I willed myself to write something about my SL afterlife and found it incredibly hard to find an introduction to this topic. Looking at what I have written now gives me more the impression of an epitaph to the avatar formerly known as Tenchi Morigi.

Honestly, it kind of is one. I ended my regular visits to the grid in August 09 and have returned only twice since then. I have followed the regular coverage of this blog and was sad that the difficulties we foresaw in 07 already are now coming to full effect, most likely doing irreparable damage to the concept of virtual worlds in the future.

But what has this to do with my SL Afterlife. Well after SL I tried out several ways of socialising and have to say that no platform offers such an easy an uncomplicated approach to that like SL did which is a real loss (I would love to be proven wrong there). It seems that there is no real alternative, and all possible alternatives are far from the "social quality" SL once could muster. So the subject is currently completely off the table for me. Well you could meet me online, but that would mean a 70-year-old Orion slave girl charging at you wielding a bath'leth in STO. Yes I am playing Star Trek Online at the moment since I always was a Trek girl and looked forward to it, but the style of communication and socializing is in no way comparable to what SL had to offer. That shouldn't be a big surprise, since STO in fact is a game while SL is not.

I admit that I woefully look back to those days and wished that people were a little different, LL a little less greedy and me a little more motivated. The time I spent in SL was great and surely not wasted, but reading the coverage on it and talking to the people I am still in touch with they will remain a memory to be cherished rather then an epoch to be continued.

Going back to sleep