Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Neo-Luddite Reflections on Razors and Shaving Nerds

 Location: Becoming an Aqua-Velva Man

Although I made a great leap forward a few weeks ago, by disconnecting our land line and getting a cellular phone, I compensated by becoming a throwback in matters of personal hygiene.

No, I still bathe and brush my teeth daily. I mean shaving: I reverted to my grandfather's Gem Micromatic safety razor, after misplacing my Gillette Sensor two-blade. For some time, at the prompting of another friend who questions technology on a daily basis, I was considering "going retro" with my shaving. Moreover, I got angry over the war of escalation in price and numbers of blades per razor (it's spawned a parody of Moore's Law: 14 blades / razor blade by the year 2100!). I dislike electric razors, having used one for nearly a decade in and after high school.

So it was back to 1920 for me. I'm also skilled with my grandfather's razor (a pristine version is pictured here); in his last years, I shaved him weekly with it, causing nary a nick. And for 30 years I have used his shaving mug and a brush, after finding shaving creme expensive and wasteful.

Being a thick-bearded man of Lebanese descent, I wear a closely cropped beard and have done so for--gasp--33 years. I only shave my throat and cheekbones.  This reduces nicking, but I was unprepared for the excellence of a technology nearly 100 years old. Simply put: nothing modern touches a good blade in a safety razor, excepting a straight razor that I won't dare try even with my steady hands.

As usual, an innocent interest of mine lands me in the midst of fanatical collectors. All things nerdy spawn Web sites, so I give you:
I think I'll be buying a second "travel" razor, given that my daily is a family heirloom. Somewhere in the afterlife, my dad and grandfather, clean shaven of course, are having a good laugh and saying "what is the matter with you, boy? You crazy?" Dad was a typical "new and improved 20th Century guy." "Old" meant "toss the damn thing out," to him. My grandfather was more like me, questioning why things change just to make more money for a company already producing a well designed, effective product. But even he would laugh at me for being so sentimental about an everyday object that had served him well for many decades.
No, this is not some trend, in my case, spawned by Mad Men. It's the return to an appropriate and sustainable technology after Gillette made shaving ludicrous and most gear has become disposable.  You may have noticed that some stores lock down their razor blades to prevent theft. At a dollar per cartridge, it's easy to see why. Single-edged blades are just as sharp, last longer without clogging, and cost half what a Sensor razor blade ran me.

Shaving has become fun again. It's more of a mindful and meditative ritual now, which is what using technology should be, in my opinion, to keep one from taking it for granted. I'll soon have a '65 Mustang ragtop back on the road, an old favorite car of my wife's, and from driving her other classic, a '68 Chevy C-10 truck, I can tell you: you do not multitask with antique technology. Eyes on the open road or your precious throat.

Besides, old-school shaving has all the doo-dads that make antique technology so fascinating: I love wiping the blade clean amid the wafting scent of aftershave, as I prepare myself for the daily grind. I had stopped using aftershave, but now, with such a close shave daily, it refreshes my skin. Moreover, when shaving with antiques one must pay attention to the razor or risk a cut. I'm very good at it, but the focus is zen-like: hai karate!

Well, back to slapping my cheeks with Aqua Velva and repeating old jingles that my truck-driver father used to belt out on our road trips:

Ladies jump from fire escapes
To get away from hairy apes.
Use Burma Shave!

That's not quite the historical slogan, but it was good enough for me to kindle a life-long interest in the manly art of a good, close shave.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Good Idea for Writing Centers in Second Life, A Little Late

University of Utah Writing Center in Second Life
Location: Writing Lab Newsletter

Image credit: Flickr image by Marriott Library, University of Utah

I read this monthly journal about the theory and practice of peer tutoring, and I've not given a lot of thought to how virtual worlds might help. After all, my campus is residential and small. We do not have a widely dispersed student body living off campus, and the interest in virtual worlds hovers between "nil" and "huh?"

But not all schools work that way, and I was surprised to see Russell Carpenter's and Megan Griffin's "Exploring Second Life" in the March 2010 issue. I was slow getting to it; you can pick up a free PDF copy of the issue online but it's not easy. Click and then find volume 34, number 7.

Their piece came long after the hype cycle for SL had tumbled into Gartner's "Valley of Disillusionment."  As I will explain in a forthcoming post, at a recent VWER meeting my assertion went unchallenged when I called SL a "legacy application" in education.

In spite of that, Carpenter's and Griffin's piece was enough to make me reconsider the beneficial effects of virtual worlds for writing practice, something I'd dismissed here some time ago. It won't change my own campus practice, yet. It might, at some future time, change how I interact with other directors and peer tutors. Notably, the authors claim that:
  • SL provides a more "personable" space for interaction with writers than does a 2D conferencing application.
  • Using SL was easy for staff and writers, but building "requires scripting and programming experience along with a great deal of patience."
  • The presence of white boards to display video and other materials offers a unique and immersive experience.
  • The ability to share real estate with other schools lets writing tutors share best practices cheaply.
And that last application of SL is the "killer app" to me. It is expensive to get tutors together between schools to share ideas. It also takes a great deal of planning, arranging vans, and coordinating schedules. There's no way to just "go hang out" with peer-tutors elsewhere, and I would love to find a way to get our Writing Consultants more engaged in seeing what occurs at other schools, even observing tutorials within the privacy regulations of FERPA and university-specific policies.

At present, I have no clear idea how many writing centers maintain an SL location. A Google search turns up centers for Michigan State , the University of Missouri St. Louis , The University of Central Florida centers. Bowling Green State's center comes up in search, but in reality it closed after a new director, with little interest in SL, took over. The spot not far from our VWER Roundtable venue now houses another project.

There may be more. I only hear anecdotes. Writing Centers have long been experimenters, but given our lack of professional time and funds, Second Life may be one of those experiments that never quite reached a conclusion.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Creating Claustrophobia in a Build

Location: Attic, Virtual House of Usher

I'm close to finishing the SL build, at least to the point where I'll open the doors for visitors. Later, we will schedule a few events with our Usher actors.  I wanted, first, to address some concerns that my last group of students had in the OpenSim build.

See the chest to the left of my avatar? It's way too big, and I cannot resize it.

Normally, I'd build something or do without, but here, I  decided to "leave it big" (also letting me pull out an old inventory item we liked before).

Students noted that the House in Jokaydia Grid was not cluttered and crowded enough, and in both OpenSim and SL builds run bigger, with taller ceilings, than most real-life spaces.  That's the fault of 8' tall avatars and the clumsy way the camera follows  us when we move.

To create claustrophobia in wide-open spaces, I have tried a few methods to "trick the eye." These reverse the process I wrote about for creating the illusion of vast distance. Notably:
adding low-prim partitions and obstacles in rooms
  • splitting some Jokaydia-Grid rooms into two rooms in SL
  •  living with the jumbo-sized SL items, or making some things a little larger than to-scale. That way, space gets crowded!
  • tinting distant items slightly darker to add complexity to the space. This also keeps the build from being too bright, a complaint by a few of my students last term.
  • adding prims, such as rafters in the attic, that lower the ceiling without making the camera bounce around when an avatar walks.
In doing these things--and I am sure I will find more techniques!--I continue to be amazed at the low-cost affordances of building in SL or OpenSim. While some educators are tempted by Minecraft or Unity 3D, I would ask them to consider the outcome desired.

For now, at least, for low-volume simulations SL and OpenSim suit my needs perfectly. I've been back to the Trident Main Store again and again for items I cannot or do not wish to build. Unlike some of the mesh items from Turbosquid that John Lester showed me for building, the costs have been trivial, a few thousand Linden Dollars total.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Kodak, iBooks, and a Day We Should Recall

Location: Crux of history

Yesterday's technology news featured two events worthy of an annual commemoration: the Eastman-Kodak bankruptcy filing and Apple's announcement of its iBook initiative.

Both show how corporations can prepare for changing times...or not. Kodak, inventor of the first digital camera, did not market it because the impact would be disastrous to their film-based model. It provides yet more evidence why Tim Wu's model of "disruptive technologies" often get suppressed in the name of profits. Fuji and other companies adapted to changing times and Kodak proved late to the game.

Apple, the champion of technological comebacks, took a different route ever since Steve Jobs' return to the firm. Every iOS device released was lambasted, at first, by mainstream reporters. Jokes about the iPad in particular were sharp and pretty darned funny, to this observer.

Unlike Kodak, however, Apple took a long view of how the devices might disrupt their sales of traditional computers, always far behind those running Microsoft's OS. Yet with less to lose, perhaps, Apple could gamble big on the future of digital content. I got angry at Apple, not long ago, over the iPad. It seemed to be Jobs' "up yours" moment to Mac loyalists.  Now, the post-Jobs Apple plays the two computers as one system: create content on the Mac, show it on the iPad. Apple still won't put Flash on the iPad, but so far I'm happy with their device.

And with the textbook announcement, they realized something I had said for years: the printed textbook is obsolete. Publishers rush to release new and expensive editions that students must lug about and then resell at a loss. These paper texts lack multimedia. My analogy for this is a botany text I own and love: the printed and $100 version can have color plates from a cloud-forest in Costa Rica or the Great Barrier Reef. The online version would have live video-streams from Webcams and embedded video demos.  It would cost $20 and not be able to be resold.

Kodak wanted to sell you a roll of film. Apple wants to sell school systems an ecosystem: cheap iPad with publisher-vetted content that cannot be resold. Brilliant.

Why did publishers wait so long? Apple took the systemic and long view, while Eastman Kodak sat on innovation.

And thus empires rise and fall.

Personal PS: we disconnected our land-line phone yesterday, for good. Of all days! I do have a dumb phone, while my more social wife got the iPhone. Call, and I may get back to you. Eventually.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“Possible, Probable, and Preferable Future of Education in Virtual Worlds”

Location: VWER Meeting

Every year, I look forward to this event. In 2009, it is where I first met AJ Kelton and many of the folks to whom I later became close colleagues. The full transcript of the meeting can be found here. It's full of good advice and links for educators.

Now that Iggy, my avatar, has turned five years old (500 years in SL time) it's informative for me to compare the notes by our panel of experts who met on January 5 with my own youthful enthusiasm from 2007.  This year our panelists were not grim, but they advised diversity and moving past a focus solely upon Second Life. Sarah Smith-Robbins, who could not attend our meeting but has been a regular in years past, has a worthwhile and detailed assessment of the situation, "Are Virtual Worlds (Still) Relevant in Education?"

Our answers will differ. For me, "yes, when I again teach a course using 3D simulations, probably in two years."

As readers ponder their own uses of the technology, consider these predictions and observations:
  • All of the panelists felt it had been a hard year for educators in Second Life, and that the sector has diminished as faculty look to alternatives that are cheaper and more autonomous of one company's control. 
  • Interest in other virtual worlds has not necessarily spiked at the universities represented by the panelists; budgetary issues and the rise of mobile technology have worked against the expansion of faculty and student use of virtual worlds.
  • Jokay Wollongong noted that more of her attention has gone to Minecraft, and that the SL presence for Jokaydia has diminished. In particular, the interaction of parents and their children in Minecraft has been transformative for her work in education
  • Ken Hubble, of the Canadian Border Crossing Project, will move his work from Second Life to Unity 3D. He prefers the interface and learning curve for Unity 3D, when designing simulations.
  • Anthony Fontana was more upbeat about technology, giving us three words: “gamification, mobile, and Web”
  • Wainbrave Bernal (Jonathon Richter) notes "I am seeing more researching into practice – applied research. . . . check out the ARVEL wiki for growing body of research in virtual worlds, augmented reality, and games – as well as emerging technology."
Despite a rough year behind us, none of the VWER guests were pessimistic. As Fleep Tuque (Chris Collins) notes about the year to come, "the focus will be less on a specific platform than on how we can bring together various technologies. My focus more on helping faculty and students learn."

And that sounds right to this blogger and educator.

Friday, January 13, 2012

US Citizens: Time to Act on SOPA and PIPA Legislation

Location: Real State of Concern

If you think the Digital Millennium Copyright Act hurt the Internet as we know it, I urge you to look at what the Electronic Frontier Foundation has to say about two bills currently before Congress: PIPA and SOPA.

Read more and write your legislators through the EFF here. This is sad and serious business: user-generated content, as we all know it, could just vanish.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2012 Survey: Education, Nonprofits, and Virtual Worlds

Last year, in the wake of the decision by Linden Lab, I posted a poll of educators and those in the non-profit sector. The results can be found here.

One more year on, I'm repeating the survey. It is open until Feb. 1.

Update: Jan.  12: Hamlet Au reports Tyche Shepherd's figures on the number of private regions lost in SL in 2011: 879. I presume that most of these would not be educational sims.

Students and Academic Roleplay: Some Responses

Cast Pic  
Location: Virtual House of Usher, Second Life

The work in Jokaydia Grid last semester gave my students the chance to sound off about roleplay. I was pleasantly surprised how many of them slipped into character. In a post last month, I looked at ideas students had for improving future expeditions to the House of Usher: new settings, characters, effects, and props. In this post, I share some reflections about what students felt they did well to make the improvisational roleplay work, or not.

My student Elon, who is drafting an academic article about the nature of story in the game Mass Effect, replied a great deal with useful information. Like a good academic, he's drafting ideas for the later project.
  • Logan: students were required to think critically and put effort into the simulation if they expected to gain a better understanding of the story, and quite possibly change the story altogether within the simulation.
  •  Elon: In order to be a proper role-playing character, the user has to continuously maintain the world’s setting and authenticity. To do this, I had to first find out about the House of Usher by reading the story, and then I had to carefully maintain who I was within the simulation.
  • Emily:  A character must be created and maintained, usually conforming to some specific guidelines but otherwise left up to the player. For example, my character was given a motive of holding a grudge against the Ushers due to the fact that they had denied her a loan. 
  • Elon:  I decided to tell Roderick I admired his paintings and wanted to wander around a bit. I still couldn’t find the family papers. I was panicking by the time Roderick called for us to see our quarters, but luckily Mark drew Roderick away to explore the island with him. This gave me the opportunity to find the papers, detailing his family history and more information about the nature of the land.
  • Emily:  If my character had not chased Roderick out into the swamp, then [a major clue] would not have been found. Since my partners were convinced at the time that Roderick was evil, it is likely that the ending of the story would have played out altogether differently if I had not possessed that proof of his innocence.
  • Elon:  The interactive experience isn’t purely just with the game engine, but also with other users . . . . The result is an experience where everyone has their share of invested time, choices, and manipulations of the plot.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

John Norman Meets Edgar Allan Poe

Location: Trident Main Store

When building in Jokaydia Grid, I really missed the availability of good sculpted content for a few hundred Linden Dollars.

Now that the build is going up at Glasgow Caledonian's campus, I ventured out again to find some Medieval and Gothic decor. That's how I happened upon Laufey Markstein's Trident Main Store. Now I have a blacksmith's kit for the crypt of the new Usher build. More to come!

While I'm not fond of Norman's books or his philosophy, some of the builders serving the Gorean-roleplay community produce amazing wares. I'm less interested in slave-silks than I am in the impedimenta of daily life: blacksmith's tools, kitchen items, gardening hardware. These things did not change much over the centuries, so for a build set in the year 1847, lots of Gorean accessories would do just fine.

I have long lamented that Morris Mertel's shop has vanished form SL, but Laufey's offers me a good deal of merchandise to finish the new build.  And the cheesecake shots made the trip fun, too:

No, I did not buy the Bath Girl from Trident. It was only a costume, anyhow...Bath Girl not included...I don't think Poe ever went that far.

Miss, Mr. Usher needs a towel!

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011: The Year for Virtual Worlds Arts

Artists at VWER 
Location: VWER meeting

It was a pleasure, back on December 15, to interview artists Wizard Gynoid, Soror Nishi, and Miso Susanowa for our Roundtable meeting.  The year for the virtual arts ended badly, as Bryn Oh's work at Immersiva became unavailable for reasons still not clear as I publish this post.

In our meeting, we talked about work by our three artists in SL, their moves back and forth from OpenSim, and the nature of art itself in virtual and physical spaces. A full transcript of our chat can be found here, but I'll tip in some highlights.

On the "medium" in VWs:
  • Wizzy Gynoid (wizard.gynoid): i belong to a group called NPIRL Not Possible in Real Life. most of what i do is not possible in RL. . . .due to the scale landscaping as an art form is almost impossible in RL.
  • Miso Susanowa: but there’s also the exploration of what is native to this environment that is ONLY possible in this environment, like… say… AM Radio’s The Far Away.
  •  Wizzy: if someone can see the beauty in a mathematical object, then i have succeeded.
On Second Life and OpenSim 
  • soror Nishi: I have a sim in InWorldz, it’s far cheaper, less restrictions on building sizes and better support.
  • Wizzy Gynoid (wizard.gynoid): the open sims allow me to build bigger and link bigger stuff.
  • Miso Susanowa: also… the chance to build and not be overwhelmed with socializing.
  • Wizzy Gynoid (wizard.gynoid): there is no clear driving direction that Linden Lab has. where are they going? 3D prim versions of PacMan?
That remains to be seen...as does SL's growth under the Electronic Arts alumni Rod Humble and Will Wright. All three guests believe that 2012 will be a year when more VW-native art becomes tangible, as more galleries recognize the promise of the online spaces and 3D printing matures to enable more items to be exported to physical space.

Happy 2012, all!