Win some, lose some, it’s all the same to me

The New York Times had an interesting piece this week profiling top online poker player Daniel Cates, and seeking to identify the secret of his success. The short answer seems to be “Asperger Syndrome“, but the details of how hours spent playing resource-management games like Command and Conquer sharpen the skills needed to triumph at the virtual card tables are certainly fascinating.

The key message though is that even a good player is at the mercy of fortune, and skill will only out over the course of thousands of hands, with many a losing streak along the way. It evidently helps to be able to see money as just an abstract way of keeping score rather than something actually valuable, especially when one can lose over $4 million in a few hours.

My own poker habit is nowhere near that level thankfully; I don’t win, but I lose slowly enough that it qualifies as cheap entertainment. Even when the cards don’t fall my way it can still be fun – just the other day I went all-in with a King-high flush only to see my opponent turn over the Ace, but I was able to smile at the thought of him gathering in my cash while whistling the greatest song about gambling ever written.

Won’t you please be my friend?

In an effort to win back the confidence of the government, I have redoubled my efforts in the social media sphere by setting up a Facebook page unashamedly in the identity of my avatar. This clearly breaches the rules of the social networking site, but I have heard that they are turning a blind eye to SL-related profiles, so hopefully I won’t be deleted.

I currently have a grand total of zero friends, and I’m not exactly sure how I should go about remedying this problem. I guess the Lab would like me to invite all my non-virtual acquaintances over, so that I could introduce them to the joys of the grid, but, in common with most other residents I’m sure, I have a real-life reputation that I don’t want associated with Johnny Staccato, thank you very much. (It’s called Second Life for a reason.)

So I’m reduced to trawling the internet, forlornly appealing for attention. Perhaps not the best way of dispelling the notion that Second Life residents are needy, socially-challenged losers.

I think the problem is that Facebook and Second Life are functional in diametrically opposite ways; the former is useful for integrating our diverse social networks, but the latter is attractive because it allows us to dis-integrate the different strands of our personality. That the Lindens don’t seem to understand this (if they did they wouldn’t be pushing a Facebook strategy, and would have been much quicker to ban alt-linking products like Redzone) is just one more reason to be pessimistic about the future of Second Life.

The Solution

In other news, Hamlet Au at New World Notes has discovered what is wrong with Second Life; it’s the residents. His answer to this problem? We should all get lost, and let the Lindens recruit a better class of customer by befriending people on Facebook.

It puts me in mind of Bertolt Brecht’s famous poem The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

A few months ago I joked that New World Notes was the virtual equivalent of Soviet Weekly – perhaps I was closer to the truth than I knew.

Zoned out

We’ve not had much in the way of Second Life content recently; for one reason or another I’ve not had time to log on to the grid in ages, and I’ve just been glancing at the SL blogosphere in passing.

So what’s been happening? Let’s see… The main action seems to have been the Redzone imbroglio (actually an old story, which came to a head this month for some reason). Playing on the characteristic paranoia and narcissism of SL residents, virtual entrepreneur zFire Xue scared people with stories of how their “security” was under threat from some shadowy villains. In the real world Xue would be a political demagogue, but, this being the free-market utopia of Second Life he instead cashed in by selling an expensive technological “solution” to the “problem”. There was a backlash of course, ironically driven by the same paranoia Xue had exploited in the first place, and the Lindens belatedly lumbered into action to ban Xue and his system from the grid, though apparently without closing the loophole he was using to violate residents’ privacy.

Paranoia, narcissism, management incompetence… good to see that not much has changed in Second Life in my absence.

I’m not sure that this episode tells us anything about the psychology of SL residents that we didn’t know already after the events of “Emeraldgate“, but it does add weight the general impression that Linden Lab are not a serious company. Do they have a corporate risk-management department? Do they employ lawyers? Do they read the newspapers? If so, how did they miss that Xue’s system clearly breached EU data protection law, and that the Lab, as platform hosts, were placing themselves at risk of prosecution for failing to safeguard their customers’ information? They may have calculated that the risk was minimal, but, with practically no upside in letting Xue continue to operate, why take a chance? The situation called for decisive action, not months of dithering followed by a half-baked intervention. If I was a potential investor I wouldn’t be particularly impressed.

The Leopard

This week saw the sesquicentennial of the foundation of the unified Italian state. This notable anniversary inspired me to snack on some antipasti and quaff a glass or three of Valpolicella; thus refreshed, I pulled my old copy of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard from the shelf, and settled down to reread one of the classic works of European literature.

The Leopard has in fact been called “Perhaps the greatest novel of the century”, though that was by L.P. Hartley, whose admiration is understandable when one considers that his best-known work, The Go-Between is very similar thematically.

The praise is not too hyperbolic though; Lampedusa’s tale of the twilight of the aristocratic order and the rise of the bourgeoisie in the days of the Risorgimento is a compact masterpiece. It works powerfully on several levels; as a vivid description of the political events of the time, as a portrait of individuals struggling with the conflicting pulls of love and duty, but perhaps most affectingly as an examination of mortality, and the perpetual impermanence that is an inevitable part of the human condition.

That feeling of loss that pervades the book makes it a very conservative work; it is an elegy for the lost nobility, and the picture it paints of the bourgeoisie who succeeded them is decidedly unflattering. This interpretation of the events of the 1860s couldn’t be further from my own, but the novel’s melancholic tone is sufficiently sympathetic to my general outlook on life that such political differences seem irrelevant.

I may be making The Leopard sound rather depressing, and in some ways it is, but it is one of those sad stories that is so beautifully told that the overall effect is uplifting. The events it portrays may now be distant history, but the message that destruction is the unavoidable cost of progress is as relevant as ever.

Be thankful for a dull life

I often complain about life in my home country, but in reality we have it fairly easy here. The nearest we come to anything like a civil emergency is a bit of snow, moderately strong winds, or occasional minor flooding; certainly nothing like a massive earthquake, a devastating tsunami, or a nuclear plant meltdown, let alone all three in the same weekend.

I can’t really imagine then what the people of Japan must be going through; the only way things could get worse for them would be if Godzilla rose from the ocean and started stomping Tokyo.

I guess it’s a reminder of how precarious life is, even for citizens of advanced industrial countries like Japan; Mother Nature can always throw something unexpected our way. Another reason, if one were needed, to stop grumbling and appreciate the brief time we have in this world.

Donate to the Japan relief effort.

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. It was first marked one hundred years ago, in Germany, following a proposal by famous German socialist Clara Zetkin, and is now celebrated all over the world. I’m hoping to make it along to a local event later today; check the IWD website for activities in your area.

In the virtual world, the Instituto Espanol in Second Life has an interesting-looking program of IWD-related talks and music which I may try to catch too. I couldn’t see any other events in SL advertised, but I only did a quick search, so I’m sure there are more out there.

As the IWD website says, “International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.”. These days it sometimes seems that our ruling elite are determined to roll back every progressive gain the working class has made in the last century, so it’s important to pause and reflect upon the victories our sisters have won, and look forward to a better, more egalitarian, future.

Thoughts on the Libyan situation

The tide of revolution sweeping the Arab world had looked as if it was going to wash away long-serving dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but as I write it appears that Libya is poised on the brink of all-out civil war. The situation is fluid of course, but it seems that Gaddafi has been able to consolidate his position around Tripoli and other strongholds, while the rebels are not showing much sign of advancing from the territory they have won in the east of the country.

The outlook looks grim in the short term, though at least there seems to be little appetite in the West for military intervention, so the Libyans should be allowed to fight it out on their own. I hope the rebels will prevail in the end, and usher in a more peaceful and democratic future for the country, but that outcome is far from certain.

Gaddafi’s reputation has come full circle in the last thirty years. Back in the ’80s he was a “mad dog”, and Ronald Reagan was trying to kill him; by 2009 his rehabilitation was so complete that Reagan’s successor could greet him like a long-lost friend. Now he has returned to the doghouse, and it seems unlikely that history will remember him kindly. Gaddafi’s popularity, or lack thereof, in the West always had more to do with global power relations than his personal attributes anyway; when he stood in opposition to imperialist designs in the region he was demonised, and when he was willing to sign deals with our oil corporations he was lauded. The views of the Libyan people, who actually had to live with him, were never factored into this of course.

I think that the Libyan revolution illustrates the reality of what it takes to challenge established power, and seriously undermines the idea that there is some new social media-related paradigm that allows us to overthrow the government by tweeting and posting videos on YouTube. The Guardian had a piece on this last week; here’s the comment I left in the discussion:

I think that the points about how Twitter, Facebook, etc have facilitated communication are valid, but I don’t buy the idea that social media have been the main factor, or even a major factor, in this wave of revolution – that honour belongs to the courage and initiative of the working masses, as expressed through their own forms of organisation, such as (in Egypt especially) labour unions.

I think that the tendency to reduce the complexity of these events to simple labels like “Twitter Revolution” betrays an essential ignorance in the West about the degree of development of Arab society, and represents an attempt to appropriate the energy of the revolutions in a way that portrays the West as a liberating force – “Aren’t these people lucky we set them free by giving them Facebook?” The truth is of course that we have maintained these repressive regimes over decades, and it is despite us, rather than thanks to us, that the people of the region are finally freeing themselves.

No doubt this debate will run and run, but the Libyan people, like their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts before them, are teaching us a lesson about the courage and commitment that is needed to bring about true change.