It’s been snowing heavily over the last few days, smothering the city in a freezing white shroud. In years past this would have prompted me to grab my skis and head for the hills, or at the very least take a sledge down to the park. I remember a time in college when a few friends and I drove up to the slopes and camped out for a week, in the middle of January. We had good equipment, but even so just thinking about it now makes me shiver.

These days such rugged frontier spirit is just a memory, and winter weather is more likely to inspire complaining blog posts than outdoor adventure. I should really get back into skiing, since it is the only sporting activity that I am even remotely good at. I might look into booking an Easter vacation in the Alps.

In the meantime I’ll keep on moaning about the cold, though at least it gives me the chance to keep our good run of song-themed posts going…

That’s Not My Name

My avatar’s third rezday fell last month, which I rather overlooked, since I was focussed more on Premium Account renewal day, which was last week, and whether it was worth $80 or so to keep my patch of virtual land for another year. I eventually decided it was, or rather I didn’t decide that it wasn’t, since I would have had to actively cancel my subscription, so I’m on board for the next 12 months at least, assuming Second Life lasts that long. I effectively got this year for free, since I had a big enough pile of accumulated L$ from my stipend to cover it, though I suppose I could have just cashed them out.

It does make me wonder what the average age of an active SL avatar is. I imagine that the distribution would be bimodal, with a huge peak of very young residents, and another spike of oldies. (I feel that I should know this for sure, since, according to Google, SLS is the top authority on current Second Life demographics.)

Anyway, in light of this anniversary I was moved to do something that I’ve thought about a few times, but never got round to, that is create an alt. I’ve been feeling that it’s about time that I linked this blog with an actual Second Life identity, rather than continuing to lurk behind a double layer of pseudonymity, but I didn’t want to expose my primary account, because it has a history of its own, which I felt should stay undisturbed.

So here’s my new virtual face; pretty much the same as my old one:

apart from the different-coloured hair and a couple of other tweaks.

Thanks to the new “Display Name” feature (which people seem to be down on, but I think is a great idea), I’m able to go by the name of “Johnny Staccato“. I’ll obviously need to get a sharper suit.

Not that that’s the real me of course…

Brink of the Clouds

I was briefly excited by the news that a test version of Skylight, the fabled browser-based SL client, was up and running; I hurried to log on, only to find that it didn’t work on my iPhone or my netbook. I’m not sure if this is due to hardware limitations, OS incompatibility (iOS4.1 and Linux) or bandwidth issues, or some combination of the three, but whatever the cause it doesn’t bode well for the promise that the project would bring SL to low-powered mobile devices. I guess I could try it on my desktop, but that would seem to defeat the purpose a bit.

It is just a beta of course, and the final version, if it ever emerges, may sort these problems out. I still think the concept has some potentially fatal flaws though.

The central problem is that it is not at all clear that enabling browser access to SL is a good thing, business-wise. The theory seems to be that lowering the entry barrier will encourage more new users, but even if this works, there is still the problem of extracting enough revenue from these people to cover the substantial hardware, power and bandwidth costs associated with server-side rendering.

Currently residents are monetised via subscriptions, land-sales and tier charges, and participation in the in-world economy. However the particular population that this new service is supposed to attract – people who will look at SL in their browser, but can’t be bothered to download and install the client – seem less likely to be sufficiently invested in the idea of virtual worlds to make a significant contribution to these revenue streams.

What does that leave? Pay-per-minute access charges? Some sort of Farmville-clone that encourages people to spend money? Advertising on the web-page? I guess that the Lindens have worked out a business model, but it’s hard to see how it adds up.

Personally, I think that Skylight’s best chance of success lies in selling it as a way of adding value for their existing customers, rather than attracting new ones. I would certainly spend more time in-world if I could do it on the move, or even from the couch rather than at my desk, and I might even be willing to pay a bit more for my premium account if it included browser access.

So, bring on the clouds

God Save The Queen

The papers today are full of the joyous news that the country is to be lifted form its collective gloom by a Royal Wedding. Times may be hard, but we are sure to be cheered by the sight of our future King and his radiant bride walking happily down the aisle.

Our are we? The obvious parallel is the 1981 wedding of William’s parents, Charles and Di, which also took place in the midst of a recession, and has gone down in history as an event that united the nation in rejoicing. I do remember the media-orchestrated mood of generalised hysteria that accompanied those nuptials, but I also recall that a substantial number of people didn’t buy into it.

The three decades that have passed since that day have not been kind to the idea of deference to Royalty, and I suspect there will be more than few of Will and Kate’s future subjects wondering why exactly we should be getting excited about the union of two members of the country’s privileged elite, let alone be paying for it.

There are months to go yet of course, plenty of time for the press to whip up some patriotic fervour, but also time for the left to do some anti-monarchy agitation. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but this wedding might just be the event that gets a serious republican movement going in this country.

Even if that doesn’t work out, we might at least see some anti-establishment sentiment back in the music charts.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

Accountant Paul Chambers was back in the news this week, after he lost his appeal against a conviction for sending a “menacing message”, specifically an ill-advised tweet in which he humorously threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport in Nottingham. The case has prompted a flurry of indignation around the Twittersphere, with supporters complaining about censorship, and rallying to show solidarity by retweeting Chambers’ offending message.

I’m not sure how to feel about this issue. I’m all for freedom of speech, but I’m finding it hard to get too outraged about this limitation of my liberty to issue prank terroristic threats on the internet.

It reminds me of how, back in the old days, when one was standing in line at the airport, one would occasionally hear some wise-guy “joke” with the security staff with some variant of “Don’t look in there mate, that’s where the bomb is, ha ha”, which would be met with an icy smile, but no further action. Then, after 9/11, these irritating but otherwise harmless jackasses started getting hauled off to jail, and pretty soon that brand of humour disappeared. It’s difficult to say that the world is a poorer place for its passing.

That said, I guess on balance my sympathy is with Chambers, since I think that momentary stupidity, while clearly regrettable, shouldn’t actually be against the law. His faux pas is another illustration of how social media are blurring the distinction between public and private in ways that can have unexpected results. What’s passably funny when recounted to one’s immediate circle may be less amusing when it is relayed to the whole world.

I expect that, as immersion in electronic social networks becomes the norm, people will develop a keener sense of what to share and what to keep to themselves. The law will probably take longer to catch up though, so I’m going to make sure that all my tweets remain thoroughly anodyne, and not susceptible to any misinterpretation whatsoever – certainly nothing that’s too near the bone.

Living in Gangster Time

A rather curious comment arrived in the SLS inbox the other day, from someone who identifies himself as “gunmaker_guardian”. It opened with this charming salutation:

hey guyz 🙂 its me 🙂 both of u igniter and nicholas”mafia” are full of …

and carried on in the same vein for several hundred words.

Mr Guardian is not averse to blowing his own trumpet; among other exploits he claims to have:

fired my laser in THREE colors 🙂 … broke a hackers world record of 20 million packets per second … used secondlife itself to launch a mail bomb if (sic) impossible proportions … [created] a self replicating nanoscopic black dot …

and so on.

Our intrepid internet warrior’s IP address resolves to Prescott, Arizona. Who knew such mayhem could lurk beneath the surface of this sleepy burg?

I’m guessing that this comment refers to one of those Second Life “Mafia Wars” that the Alphaville Herald is always writing about. I can’t imagine why our friend felt moved to share his thoughts on the matter with us though, unless it has something to do with that JLU piece we did a while back.

Anyway, I’ve deleted the offending epistle, since we try to aim for a slightly classier tone here at SLS, and I have no desire to get caught up in any of that griefer nonsense. Hopefully that’s the last we’ll hear of it.

Still, I dread, dread to think what the future will bring…

Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

California Über Alles

Sadly, Proposition 19 didn’t make it over the victory line yesterday, causing intense disappointment to weed aficionados worldwide. The Federal Government had promised to vigorously enforce the US anti-dope statutes in the event of Prop 19 passing (the DEA built its power during the marijuana scares of the 30’s), so victory would probably have been more symbolic than immediately practical, but it would have moved the issue a few more steps towards a rational solution. The problem seems to have been the inexplicable failure of the stoner youth vote to turn out. Let’s hope they get their act together for 2012.

The night in general turned out just about as well for the right as had been predicted, with big Republican gains across the nation, though they narrowly missed out on gaining control of the Senate, thanks to the failure of Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell to win in Nevada and Delaware respectively.

The defeat of the Tea Party candidates in these races is obviously cheering, but in the long term it may prove to be a mixed blessing for the Obama administration. The 21st-century Know-Nothings may be on a roll at the moment, but I wonder if 2010 may turn out to be the high-water mark of the Tea Party, as GOP strategists assimilate the lessons of the debacle in Delaware especially, and conclude that they need to steer more to the centre if they want to win the big prize in 2012. A lot depends on how the economy goes, but Obama’s best shot at a second term must lie with the Republicans going with a wing-nut candidate rather than the sort of fiscally conservative but socially liberal mix that worked so well for the Tories here.

Meanwhile, back in California, Jerry Brown is heading for the Governor’s mansion once again, which gives me an excuse to spin this classic number by the Dead Kennedys.

Memory Lapse

About a week or so ago I was idly browsing the web when I was suddenly struck by the thought that I should buy some more memory for my desktop computer. I must have been thinking it would speed it up, or let me run Viewer 2.0 properly or something. Anyway, I surfed over to eBay to look for some of the DIMMS that my elderly box needs. Readers may recall that the last time I tried this I went to the auction site after having a few drinks, and ended up buying the wrong kind, so I was careful to only bid on PC133 modules, and managed to pick up 1GB for what seemed like the bargain price of £8, including delivery.

The chips arrived in the post today, so this evening I set to work installing them, which was a lot more bother than I remembered. The memory slots are partially blocked by the video card and obscured by the hard drive cables, so I had to take the machine half to pieces to get the modules in. Once everything was back together I switched the power on, but of course all I got was the triple beep of the BIOS “Your memory is screwed” signal.

Some online research soon revealed that there there is a subtle but crucial difference between the PC133r memory I had purchased and the PC133u memory that my machine was expecting. After a further bout of dismantling and rebuilding I had my old configuration back working again.

I guess I’m only down a few pounds and a couple of hours, and I have learned something, albeit only some almost completely useless knowledge about the inner workings of a long-obsolete computer, which will probably crowd something more valuable out of my brain. The lesson I’m drawing from this is that change is to be feared, and I should just be happy with what I’ve got.

A Message for the Voting Public of California

I don’t know how many of you, my dear readers, are registered to vote in the Golden State, and I would imagine that those of you who are are already thinking along these lines anyway, but if you are still undecided, can I ask you to please, please, please vote in favour of Proposition 19? As well as making life much better for yourselves, the example of your fine state taking a rational stance on the marijuana question would be a much-needed injection of sanity into the debate, and would surely hasten progressive change worldwide.

As for the rest of the ballot, again you’ve undoubtedly worked this out already, but if I were eligible I’d be voting against Proposition 23. For Governor, and the US Senate seat I favour the Peace and Freedom Party candidates Carlos Alvarez and Marsha Feinland.

There are lots of other good socialist candidates standing nationwide; a partial list can be found here. In general, if you’ll excuse my presumption, I’ll just repeat my plea from two years ago, which is still sadly relevant.