Saturday, December 24, 2011

Iggy & Pappy Swap Recipes

Location: Watching the Meat Thermometer

Well, it's that time again...for country ham. The real thing, Yankees: not some water-and-smoke-juice-injected mild ham but a smoked-in-the-smokehouse-by-rugged-and-somewhat-tipsy-Virginians ham.

Rule one for all-day cooking, such as that required for perfect ham: keep the drinks handy.

At the recent VWER holiday party, both Iggy and his ol' pal Pappy Enoch showed up to cut the rug and do some ice skating.  Pappy tried to give out Iggy's recipe for a perfect Martini, but Iggy needs to restate it here for those who could not attend. If you visit Richmond, you'll have to go to Thai Diner Too with us, so Yoko and her husband Jack can mix you one of Richmond's finest drinks (and best-kept secrets). Iggy's recipe is a pale shadow of theirs.

Ignatius' Almost-As-Good-As Yoko and Jack's Martini
  • It's best to begin with liquor, shaker, and glasses that have been in the freezer or at least in the refrigerator. Cracked ice is better so, after shaking, one gets little icebergs in the mix...yum.
  • Do not cheap out on the olives. They lose their savor fast, so look for gourmet ones with not get yuppie with Kalamatas, please. Spanish olives such as those from Serapis have been Jack's secret for a while.The company has an olive museum: 'nuff said.
  • Per drunk: 2 oz top-shelf Gin (Tanqueray and Hendricks are Iggy's faves). Heretics may substitute top-shelf vodka (and if so, use more pearl onion than olive on the skewers. Martinis are not meant to be sweet).
  • I rarely make a "dirty" Martini, but if so, I tip in some of the olive brine in the next step. Do not add more than a splash.
  • Add liquor to shaker, where about 8 cubes of ice made from filtered water lie in ambush.
  • Allow Gin and ice to become acquainted for 30 seconds or so, while gently agitating the open shaker.
  • For very dry Martini, pour in a splash (perhaps a teaspoon) of dry Vermouth. My version of "dry" is about a tablespoon, but some tipplers add even more. I prefer merely tipping the Vermouth bottle in homage to the Gin and ice.
  • Install the shaker top and check for leaks. They can be a heartbreak. Then shake it like it's a '72 Chevy Vega driven at 70 mph on a washboard road.
  • In your glasses, add a skewer with at least 3 olives or, for Iggy's favorite, two olives with a pickled cocktail onion in the middle.
  • Pour the martinis. Repeat at own risk.
"Well, that am some rite good city-boy White Lightnin'," Pappy notes, "But a natural-born human bein' man gots to eat too. Write 'er up, boy."

You will find these smoked hams, ones that can store without refrigeration until sliced, in country markets and gourmet shops (they do exist!) throughout the South.  Yankees and other unfortunates can order them and when prepared properly, as the chef at Edwards shows us in the video, the results are dramatic and delicious.

Our chef does not consider how to soak the ham. Doing this loses much of the salt but keeps in the smoky flavor. It may still be too salty if you slice it thickly, so practice thin-slicing on some lesser meats, then proceed.

Here's my advice for this year for getting yonder ham ready:
  • After scrubbing any mold from the ham and rinsing, store it in a cooler. Cover with water and close.
  • For at least two days, but no more than three, change the water twice daily. Flip the ham over when you do.
  • For the last turning, add 2 liters of Doctor Pepper to the water. This is the Pappy Enoch way, y'all.  Then you are ready to follow this gent's advice:
Pappy: "Whee Hoo! Let's eat!"
Iggy: "What he said. Where are the olives?"

VWER Christmas Party
The only ham I've had that I prefer to real country ham is Jamon Iberico de Bellota, and that costs $30 per pound, if it can even be found in the US. Jamon Serrano is close, and vies for my love of ham, but I digress. Must be that Martini!

Boxing Day Update: the ham was astounding, the best in years despite overcooking to 165 degrees. Several pounds have been hoovered up by hungry Southerners. Note to self--new meat thermometer, then recheck near end of cooking time with my digital one.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Awry in a Manger: Merry Christmas, Y'all

Location: Checking Baby Jesus' Head

It is time for Rebar Jesus again. Welcome to a journey not to Second Life or OpenSim, but just down my street.

I will not name the local church, but they set out a series of stick-figures, apparently made of welded metal rods, drape them in Biblical costume, and poke their pointy bits into the ground. The entire ensemble of Wise Men, shepherds, and proud parents flutter in the breeze to show the lines of the metal skeletons beneath. The manger, such as it is, looks like a soccer goal with a few 1x6” boards strapped across.

It is not Scroogey of me to deplore this Yuletide atrocity to one of the world’s great monotheistic religions. My disdain comes not from a lack of Christmas Spirit: our house features window-lights that go up on Solstice night, the longest of the year, to remind us that the light will return. I pick a cedar and we cut ourselves each year, with my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s ornaments placed lovingly there. put it up on Christmas Eve, the old-timey date for putting up a tree, and take it down on King’s Day, January 6, when the Melchoir, Balthazar, and Caspar laid their gifts before the baby Jesus.

I am fond of the old customs, some from times before Christianity: we even walk outside to wassail our fig tree, then come inside by the fireplace to watch the Charlie-Brown Christmas special, as we drink egg-nog and wish for peace. But there is no peace to be had from Richmond’s bad Nativity scenes. At one time, the cultural doyens of our city could rein in our excesses, so that homes, under the Spartan rigor of Williamsburg’s simplicity, featured only white lights, one to a window, and any excesses, such as real pineapples, were placed in the wreath on the front door or kept entirely out of sight. Has the reader ever spotted a dancing Santa or string of red “tube lights” along Duke of Gloucester Street? No. If such a thing were to rear its ugly head, some matron whose family went back to Jamestown would rip it down and have a man in Colonial garb burn it up in a cresset.

Now, in these fallen and consumerist times, the Misses Propriety and Prudence Decorums of Richmond are long gone, and look what has happened. Just down the street from the Rebar Holy Family who could not find shelter at Home Depot, there is “Flatland Jesus” jig-sawed rather artfully from half-inch plywood and painted well. I almost like this one, until pass it in the car. At a ninety-degree angle, the parents of the Christians’ Savior of the World vanish. The church should have sprung for one-inch plywood, I guess.

The phenomenon of terrible Nativity scenes has spawned a Web site, as all things awful do, featuring Star-Wars-Lego nativities, Peeps crèches, and Elvis mangers. My favorite, pictured: all-meat Nativity with Jesus as a Vienna sausage.

Click and you'll find that the rest are there, glittering in their foulness like the tree-lot full of abominations that Charlie and Linus navigate until they find a little green tree, still made out of wood, making Charlie realize “I think it needs me.” Christmas needs you, Richmonders of taste and restraint, to save it from your fellow citizens on the tacky-light tour. Slow down from your shopping and manic preparations, like Snoopy on Crack, to watch that TV classic again. Then act accordingly. Trust me. I know Christmas. I trod the boards in the role of Scrooge for our sixth-grade holiday play.* Other cities manage this. New York, that place of craziness at all seasons, puts on the dog, rather than looking like one, at Christmas. The nativities of Midtown, not to mention the live one in Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular this year, were magnificent in 2011. There was not a bobble-headed goat to be seen. And as for the long-legged Rockettes angels? Well, I’ll be good so I can go right to Heaven.

Yet there’s one more tacky manger story to tell: my own.

Under that big cedar we cut, I lay out my remnants of my parents’ Nativity scene. It was once nice, or should I say, they once were. The set consists of about ten different ensembles from several decades and in all sorts of scales. My late mother was rough on Christmas ornaments, including a clay Holy Family I picked up for her in Madrid. One of the Castilian shepherds is now missing his left hand, and when I went to adjust Jesus’ crooked halo last year, his neck cracked and his head fell right off. Thank God, in all His or Her names, for teaching humans how to make Gorilla Glue. The baby now rests peacefully in his little bed of Spanish straw, surrounded by old Woolworth’s plaster magi, a handmade sheep that I think comes from the late 1800s, plus a Major-Matt-Mason Astronaut and plastic Santa.

Christ’s halo rolled under the corner of a large bookcase and I’ve yet to fish it out. But that child’s smile is still as divine, as if the little baby is laughing at our follies and our scurrying rush at Christmas. Someone far older and wiser is looking through those infant eyes. Come, and adore Him.

So if a pink flamingo or cement lawn-gorilla ends up in you neighborhood’s Nativity scene, don't blame this Unitarian-Universalist. I have an alibi ready.

*Scary Factoid: Novelist James Howard Kunstler was also a sixth-grade Scrooge. I wrote Jim about this, and he assures me I'm no Scrooge. But I'd bury every tacky-light contestant with a stake of holly through their hearts! Humbug!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Usher Returns to Second Life: Adding What Students Want

The Return of the House of Ush... 
Location: Glasgow Caledonian University

Thanks to the kindness of Evelyn McElhinney and her colleagues at GCU, I have a large and tier-paid parcel and many prims to use. A Version of the House of Usher from the Jokaydia Grid build, plus the Visitor Center from Richmond Island, is now returning to Second Life.

Though I won't be teaching Poe for some time, starting this Spring I will have the House open for others' classes if they wish to explore on their own. With some warning, I can gather the Ushers and some new characters for improvisational acting in the simulation.

I am delighted to be back on the Lindens' grid, because SL offers affordances that OpenSim does not, yet. That said, I'm a two-house educator now. I will maintain and continue to improve the Jokaydia Grid simulation, but I can bring in some features that SL offers to address a few student concerns.  In this post, I'll focus on what students said about the physical nature of simulation and its setting, rather than the preparation or execution of the tasks facing the actors and their guests. That merits its own later post.
  • More interactive content for more immersion. Students wanted easier navigation in places, and more confusion/claustrophobia in others. In the earlier SL sim, I'd learned that the House's Crypt was too straightforward, but even with the OpenSim build, some students noted that the rooms were too large and the layout too easy. Only one asked for a map. I will also add more moving walls, trap doors, and cul-de-sacs. Students wanted more of a sense of danger, too. As Jake said, "Adding more animated noises and trap doors would add to the whole enveloping experience." 
  • Simpler movement: One problem singled out were the spiral stairs to Madeline's chamber. I was quite proud of them at one time, but once put inside a tower these proved hard to climb for non-gamers, now replaced by Enktan Gully's 1L Elizabethan staircase (shown below). 
  • More gloom: Others noted that lighting was too bright, and rooms too large to match the oppressive feeling of Poe's tale. That's easy to remedy, with some new walls, doors, and dead-ends. Griffin, who regularly plays games, enjoyed the sandbox nature of the simulation but suggested that the island did not seem dark enough. The SL build will be inside a huge, starry bubble and the lighting will be as dim as possible.
  • We need to die, Prof. Poe's characters are often in mortal danger, and at least half of the 15 respondents said in their final exam: give us a combat system. Elon claimed that "giving Roderick true ways to threaten his guests would make the experience exponentially more fascinating. What should be done, ultimately, is that the user should feel that they might 'game over' or that their avatars can die."  
  • HUD time: I am looking at purchasing some content to provide a HUD and, in one or two places around the house, a scripted ancient weapon or two for the avatars to use if the simulation demands it. SL's many roleplaying HUDs provide opportunities to be drowned, burned to a crisp, shot full of holes, or impaled on pointy things. Something like the Spellfire system would be perfect.
  • Fashion! Three of fifteen respondents mentioned that they wanted to be able to customize their avatars more.
  • Quote the Raven (but just in text chat). Tucker stated what he and at least three other classmates felt about text-chat, noting "As practical as the chat system was, I believe that it would create a greater sense of immersion if we had headsets on and were able to private chat through typing instead." 
  • More special effects: A lack of sound was lamented by five participants. Other than creaking doors, I did not have time to record the variety of sounds I had planned for the Jokaydia Grid simulation. In SL and OpenSim I will add them, plus some stock sounds for the SL build that we used in 2009 and 2010. As Lauren put it, "lightning, rain, thunder, screams, ghoulish noises, creepy piano music would have been a nice addition to the setting the virtual realities of the Ushers."

Friday, December 9, 2011

OpenSim Exam: Cautionary Tale, Happy Ending

Madelines Chambers
Location: Jokaydia Grid, Virtual House of Usher

With some glitches along the way, six groups of students completed their final exams, or at least the immersive experience upon which they'll base a take-home essay exam.

It all began very poorly, and that's a warning to those working in OpenSim for classroom work critical to students' grades. The first day, the grid would not load, but I was in luck: the one student in the lab happily delayed his journey to the House of Usher and joined a group later in the week.  Jokay Wollongong, our grid manager, was thenceforth online for every exam: thank God. We had a serious crash later in the week, but Jokay restarted the region and we all relogged.  In fact, we roleplayed the disorientation within the scope of Poe's story, and odd things do happen to Poe's characters.

The culprit for our crash may be the old server software that runs Jokaydia Grid. Jokay cannot fix that, but the owners of the servers at Reaction Grid can. The good news is that Reaction Grid plans an upgrade next week. I'll hold them to this...I want to restore hypergrid availability to our build.

A word about the talented folks at Reaction Gird: the company has switched emphasis in recent months to Jibe virtual world technology. Jibe is promising for ease of use and the ability to run inside any Web browser. On the other hand, it's not for those who wish to build collaboratively in-world and in real time with students. That's a killer app for my use of virtual worlds. Jibe's protocols for 3D object design, like those of SL's recently introduced Mesh technology, are beyond my and my students' skills; Richmond lacks enough advanced arts students who might wield Maya or Blender.  And there is no incentive for faculty here to learn.

On the other other hand, prim-work in OpenSim or Second Life are within my skills set and those of the student-builders I train, often in teams working together, so that's where I'll stay.

As for getting hypergridding back? It offers special affordances for educators. That, after all, is how edutech works: we share and link to each other.  Even Blackboard, the course-management behemoth, is now moving to a more open model with the arrival of a "share" button.

The closed-grid model, on any platform, is that of the video-game world. It protects IP and functions for gamers and socializers, but it's not best for many of my colleagues in education. I give my own content away with Creative-Commons licensing or in the Public Domain. We are even considering whether we have tech support, locally, to host an OpenSim grid on our campus, as schools such as the University of Bristol are doing as they pull their work out of Second Life.

As we move forward to new engagements in an OpenSim grid or Second Life, I still need more data. From my students' essays, I plan to gather data for an article about effective educational roleplay and types of student roles. But I've already learned one lesson: without Jokay Wollongong's hands-on help, I'd never have trusted Reaction Grid's old version of OpenSim for something as crucial as a final exam.

Next up, I'll finish the Usher series from Jokaydia Grid with reflections by the students, from their exam essays. And a surprise twist right out of Poe: Usher is coming back to Second Life!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Virtual Worlds A Distraction? A Reply to Jon Himoff

Cast Pic 
Location: Reading Jon Himoff's Blog From The Ivory Tower

It has been a while since I've written about Rezzable's work, but I came across a post by Jon Himoff, the CEO, in which Jon asks,

"In the age of Facebook, do avatars add value or are they time-consuming distractions?"

I replied at length at his blog, but I'd like to repeat what I said here.

I'd argue that Facebook is more likely the distraction...students rarely, on my campus, use social networking for course-work. Avatar-based virtual worlds, on the other hand, provide an unparalleled ability to build simulations, Jon. Ask the US Army about MOSES, for instance.

Having just finished a final exam project in an OpenSim grid, my class loved the exerience because they were helping to shape what future classes will do. 15 of my 17 students opted for the OpenSim exam/improv session, and they had fun and learned more about the subject matter by seeing it, and more importantly, interacting with it, in 3D.  A number of observers have noted how users don't mind less-than-photographic verity in online games. We don't need "serious game" level graphics if Millennial students understand how the experience links to goals and outcomes in courses. Every demographic study of that age-cohort showed exactly this finding.

That was always the promise of something like Rezzable's Virtual King Tut experience. It saddens me that you moved on from a great bit of work that never got the marketing it merited.

Virtual worlds are a niche technology, not one for corporations to fatten the profit line. But that's not the mission for institutions of higher ed. We are in the business of helping students develop critical-thinking and content skills so they'll be better citizens and employees (in that order). I'd agree that the technology was over-hyped mid-decade, and many educators rushed in themselves, without clear pedagogical goals.

As the decade continued, and Internet use meant students using mobile devices, the niche continued to be ruled by firms with gaming and I.T. experience. Educators in the niche, however, began gaining skills to develop and deploy virtual worlds locally or in hosted settings. The emphasis could then shift to how to apply best practices to teaching, instead of how to make the tech stable. Truth be told, as with Web 1.0 and 2.0 sites, in a few years we won't need corporations to help or even host the content.

But then, many specialized apps on campuses work that way. Virtual worlds will be but another of them. They may never be mainstream, but that's not important. Mathematica and GIS software are not mainstream, either.

Friday, December 2, 2011

More on Motives & Missions

Wireframe Usher 
Location: Peeking Behind the Stage Curtain

I recently wrote of a change to this iteration of the Usher experience: my students all received a motive and a mission before they began their "expedition" to meet Roderick and Madeline.

Students liked this, as we had discussed the literary idea of "backstory" in class. We considered how, for popular fantasy series such as the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter novels, readers come to realize that a fictional world existed long before the events and it has influenced current events mightily.  Thus Aragorn's Numenorean blood has a history, as does the Ring itself. In the case of really strong television series like Mad Men or The Sopranos, backstory helps flesh out the actions by major and minor characters on screen.

Poe adhered to his own rules for short stories: he had the right, as he invented the genre. "Usher" is a self-contained world, with references to other texts, real and invented for the story. The Ushers and their problems, however, exist in a sort of vacuum. We have hints of ancient family history, some of it dark, but unlike Tolkien's world, we don't get to hear any "stories within the story," though the poem "The Haunted Palace" appears in its entirety inside "Usher."

That's because a short story, like a one-off sitcom episode, has little backstory: we get a set piece that can stand independently of any world revealed in little bits. The short nature of the narratives prevent such complexity.  All we need to know is that William Shatner's character sees a gremlin on the wing of an airliner in the classic Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 feet," and off we go with Shatner's over-the-top performance.

Lacking Rod Serling's voice or a television studio's resources, I decided to employ these motives and missions. Note that neither I nor the actress playing Madeline knew who got what, and Madeline was partly aware of one motive (I sent part of it to all of the folks in her role).

Here they are, as chosen randomly by students:

Motive: A man was drunk in Whitby’s pub, the Three Tuns. You saw him pay for his tab with a gold coin. The publican (pub owner) let you look at it, after the man stumbled out. It was a newly minted gold sovereign, enough to cover pub-bills for a month. The publican said “The Ushers have a lot of gold. That’s their man-servant, Jenkins.”

Motive: Madeline was once engaged to your brother. It was a secret between her and him, until he told you. She broke the engagement off without any explanation. Your brother, heartbroken, went off to serve as a Colonial officer in Africa and died of malaria. You’ve always been curious.

Motive: You hold a grudge against the Ushers. Their father, Sir Howard Usher, refused to loan your family money, despite their being old friends. The last of the family fortune is long gone. You have kept up a correspondence with Roderick, and from hints in it you learned, over a year ago, that Roderick too is facing financial ruin.

Motive: You had a sister who began to fall asleep at midday. Eventually, she began sleepwalking. She died when a doctor’s medicines went awry and she never awoke. You suspect that your sister might have had her body stolen by ghouls who sell such to the medical colleges in London. From Roderick’s letter, you fear something might befall your old friends…the men who steal bodies have been very active in Yorkshire.

Motive: You are from Cornwall, in the Southwest of England. You knew the Ushers years ago, and have kept up correspondence with them sporadically. A local family, the Ennis family, lost a son, Colin. He was a sailor killed late last year when his ship ran aground…on the island where Roderick and Madeline Usher live.

Mission: Find a way into Roderick’s room and look for family papers.

Mission: Explore the island. You all took ship to the island from Whitby, Yorkshire. A man also staying at your lodging and hearing of your destination, said “there are spirits and secrets outside that old house, and riches too from…pirates in the olden days.”

Mission: You are interested in shipwrecks. You heard about the wreck of the Grampus on this island late last year.

Mission: Explore the Ushers’ book collections. You know that the Ushers own many rare books, and you collect old books yourself and make a tidy sum trading and selling them.

Mission: Find what you can about the medicines Madeline is taking for her illness. Moms Ghost 1/2
Special thanks to my students and the actors in the role of Madeline! Back to grading...