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Roundup: Star Wars, holiday tech gifts, ArcheAge, yada yada yada

Thank you for all your kind comments about Jakob. Once the waves of grief subsided, I started finding peace with his death. His illness was never going to have a happy ending and it’s a relief to let go of the constant tension of worry and sadness. I don’t have to dread a new crisis each time his sister writes to me. His funeral is Thursday and I’m grateful that it was easy to send flowers to a village in the Rhineland from the other side of the world. Jakob will always be part of who I am.

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Image above from Berkeley Breathed of course. Some heresy: I really don’t care about the new Star Wars movie. I adored the first film of the original series. Robots! Space! Scary creatures in the desert! Darth Vader! Star Wars action figures moved into my Barbie Dreamhouse. After that? Meh. The other two in the first series were fine. A date took me to a midnight premiere of The Phantom Menace and it was hard not to dim his enthusiasm with my wtf exclamations. I hope the new movie is good and more coherent than the last few. If you see it and it’s awesome, let me know.

What technology is on your holiday gift wish list? I’m seeing a lot of hits on my review of the Amazon Echo. I’ve had mine a year and still use it daily, though there’s plenty of room for innovation and improvement. If you’re still looking for ideas, I’m pretty excited about the Anova Precision Cooker I picked up recently ($129 from the Anova website, more expensive elsewhere). This Gizmodo review explains why, with plenty of food porn. As for me, I’ve asked Santa for a Samsung Gear VR. I see it as a starter headset and the device that could spread VR from the narrow band of the innovator market segment into the early adopters.

I’ve remained moderately active in ArcheAge long after I thought I’d give it up from boredom, which says something about the game though I’m an atypical player. I’m not social, I don’t spend lots of money, and I don’t play for hours on end (except for a lazy afternoon on the weekend, perhaps). I’ll never be in the top tier but I’m satisfied. This week I moved from my boring guild of farmers and fishermen to a high level guild that often leads faction raids. I was evaluated on my level, gear, and had to pass a voice interview before I was accepted. It felt good to do my first sea raid with many of my new guildmates and to be praised for my play style. Earning the admiration and respect of one’s peers is a boost, no matter what arena that takes place in. Until No Man’s Sky arrives for the PC next year, you’ll probably find my gaming time spent in ArcheAge.

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Lately I’ve been in Second Life a lot more, relearning how to make small talk and upgrading my neglected avatars (I love the Maitreya Lara body so very much). This week I need to attend the RL holiday party for my husband’s company and that small talk practice will help tame my shyness at the event. Part of that is learning to apply filters to my stream of consciousness again; I’ve had a few years of not holding anything back when talking with my husband and Jakob. When a new acquaintance recently asked some probing questions, in a conversation where I felt that optimistic honesty would be appreciated, I told him the truth about Jakob and my health struggles. His response was more robotic than actual robots and he vanished in a cloud of dust. Ha! I’m not a roleplayer so if I’m asked a personal question that I’m willing to answer, that answer will be true. It will take practice to get back to answering truthfully without spilling my whole life, no matter how nicely phrased.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Side Topics

 

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Jakob died yesterday

Jakob had been back in the hospital for a couple weeks following another collapse, but he had been doing better and there was hope that he could move to a nursing home. So, I wasn’t prepared when I got a Facebook message from his sister yesterday. She told me that he had gotten much worse, unable to eat, speak, or recognize people. The hospital gave him morphine for pain and called her, saying they thought the end was near. He died in his sleep before she could get there.

I’ve been anticipating this day for the past year, since he was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer that had already metastasized to his brain, and I’m glad he’s at peace. That didn’t stop me from curling in a ball and wailing as my husband hugged me in silent comfort. I said a few words to his sister in broken German and I’ll write her a proper condolence note today. Poor woman… she is overwhelmed and dreads the tasks of burying her brother and cleaning out his home. I feel terrible that I just mailed Christmas cards to her house for her and for him.

Me? I’m blogging because I am too heartbroken to go to sleep. This is my eulogy for him.

Talking at Armenelos

Today, December 10th — as it’s just past midnight — is the 3rd anniversary of the day I met Jakob Aulder in Second Life and we were inseparable from that first encounter. He was a difficult man to get to know. His profile warned off questions about Real Life and for the first year whenever I asked one, he’d reply with, “Does it matter?” When I said, “No, but I’m curious,” he would insist that he wasn’t interesting to talk about, because he already knew about himself. Stubborn, that one.

Jakob never learned how to use most features of the SL viewer, he hated exploring unless I scouted places first and teleported him, and he had only two outfits in SL: a pirate costume and swim trunks. He loathed dress codes and thought they were ludicrous in a virtual world. So, every day, he was my pirate. I’d dress as a wench or captain now and then to make him laugh. No matter how often I changed clothes or switched between avatars, he was constant.

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He was bull-headed and grumpy, but he was unconditionally loving, too. He helped me through some difficult times with his simple, no-nonsense coaching. We both altered our sleep schedules so we could chat twice a day, every day: on his lunch break and before he went to bed. We watched Formula 1 races together, sitting on a couch in SL while each watching television in our RL homes. He directed me through German exercises via Skype and I read him a couple of German books, chapter by chapter, in recorded MP3s. Though he was already very ill when we spent two weeks together in Bavaria this spring, and the visit was terribly hard, I’m grateful we got to have it.

Quiet morning

We joked about his awful taste in music, but he was an ardent supporter of a few talented independent female artists. He was mad about Vienna Teng and Rachel Sage, trying to see them perform whenever they appeared within driving distance of his home in Germany. He liked when I sang for him.

The man behind the avatar was 64 years old, but the nearly two decades between our ages rarely felt like a gap. He was an artist, a pacifist, and an atheist who appreciated Buddhist philosophy, though he will be buried in a Christian cemetery near his father. His last RL partner passed away a few years ago and he is survived by no children.

Armenelos ocean view

Jakob had a standard SL account, so I suppose it will sit there until the Lindens archive it for inactivity. How long does that take nowadays? A year or more? I suppose his sister will archive his Facebook account but I’m sure he didn’t leave her his SL login. So he will remain, offline in my Friends list, until the Lindens take him away forever. I’m sure I’ll cry again then, too.

Sweet dreams, Jakob. May you be in a place with great wine and Asian food, cheesy music, and a TV channel with round-the-clock soccer and auto racing. I hope you knew you were loved until the end, no matter what. Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Relationships

 

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Right now I want to burn my connected home to the ground

My household is not on the bleeding edge of technology early adoption, but we’re usually in the first wave. So, when my husband switched in a new router for the one provided by our cable/internet company, I knew that we would have a lot of devices to update. At last count, those include:

  • 2 actively used laptops
  • 2 Android smartphones
  • 1 Amazon Echo
  • 3 WeMo outlets
  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • 1 Chromecast
  • 1 Fire TV stick
  • 1 printer
  • and heaven knows what else I’ve overlooked so far

Switching to a new WiFi network on a smartphone or laptop is a simple task, but connected home devices that lack a GUI are a different story. Each one follows a different process, usually involving both physically resetting the device and doing a new configuration via app or website. The Nest thermostat does have a GUI, but entering new network credentials requires the user to twist the dial back and forth like a safe cracker. It’s amusing, the first time.

I started working down the list. Laptop and phone, easy. Echo? Easy too. That’s when the fun stopped. The Nests refused to connect to the new network. The WeMo outlets, which are finicky in the best of situations, also choked. Dammit. The troubleshooting began. All have updated firmware? Check. I’m not mistyping the 10-character password? Nope. I started going through online forums and found something about 2.4 Ghz… huh? I’m not a Luddite, but my husband has taken care of our network for years and I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I sent him a message. I may have used some adult language. I asked if the new router broadcasts the same as the old one (not really having any idea what I was saying) and he muttered something about new security profiles.

Then, a short while later, he found the answer. Nest and WeMo devices don’t play well with dual band routers. In layman’s terms, they pick up both 2.4 and 5 Ghz transmissions, but their antennae aren’t “smart” enough to distinguish between them and talk back on the 2.4 band, which is the only one they can use. Tonight he’ll set up the two radios to have different SSIDs, so those devices can deal exclusively with the 2.4 Ghz frequency. Tomorrow I’ll try to move them to the new network, again, and then continue the list. [Update: phones, my laptop, and the Echo connected beautifully to the high speed band. The Nests and Kindles connected to the lower speed. The WeMo outlets? They had to be manually reset to factory default, which was a bitch, but we finally got them connected to the 2.4 Ghz band. I’ll tackle the rest tomorrow.]

There have been so many connected home devices on sale this holiday season; today I’m just grateful that my parents haven’t been tempted to buy any. No Mom, you do not need a WiFi connected crockpot. Heck, I have no idea why my otherwise awesome Anova sous vide cooker bothers having a Bluetooth connection. We don’t need to connect ALL THE THINGS.

IFTTT has great potential but is far from plug and play, and each time one technology in the network moves forward, it threatens to break every carefully constructed connection. Sometimes things that you think must work together, obviously, do not. Disenchanted with our Chromecast, I recently bought a Fire TV stick. I like its onscreen interface, but the TV is very slow to switch sources to it and the reason we replaced our router was Fire buffering. I’m warily optimistic. There is a voice controlled remote available for the Fire that contains Alexa, so I figured, gee, I bet I can control the Amazon Fire TV stick with my Amazon Echo. Silly silly me! Here is what one fellow from AFTVNews hacked together to make that work:

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Let’s say, that’s not mainstream consumer behavior. Full details on his set-up here.

I love technology, really I do, but I hope connected home products have a shakeup soon. A little while ago I started writing a near future science fiction story in which the main character had developed an interface layer for other devices. That interface layer operated like a true digital assistant, passing commands to the next tier of devices regardless of form or protocol. My story wasn’t very good because what I really wanted to do was daydream about that control layer. I want to be able to use natural language to control all my devices through one central AI, which can reside in a useful robotic body and also travel with me in app form. Is that too much to ask? C’mon, developers: make my story idea obsolete before I get around to writing it!

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Digital Devices

 

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Remembering the potential of virtual creativity

There are times in Second Life when the graphics seem as crude as Minecraft, the big art installations look like my doodle-covered teenage notebook come to life, and the extent of imagination appears to be choosing a pose from a menu. But then when you’re least expecting it, you can be swept away.

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Yesterday while I was in the midst of some virtual landscaping (a lot less messy than RL), a new friend asked if I’d like to come along to a performance art show. I answered, “Sure!” before contemplating what exactly “performance art” could mean this time. I was in for a wonderful surprise.

The show was at the Lady Garden Cabaret and it was stunning. It was assembled like classic cabaret, where each performer has a self-contained act, but all of those acts aligned with a theme. This month, the theme was “enchantment” and specifically Peter Pan, thus the show had a flying Pan, dancing pirates, fairies galore, a sexy crocodile (yes indeed), and a mermaid. The performers exploited many advantages of the virtual world, plopping an entire ship into the theater, taking us underwater or into the sky. I snapped a few photos. As usual, these are not PhotoShopped or altered except for cropping, and I didn’t change Windlight settings or sun position. The photos are far inferior to the live experience, where everything was in dazzling motion and accompanied by a cleverly chosen soundtrack. What you see is only a fragment of what you experience in person. (Clicking an image will take you to a larger version on my Flickr stream.)

Pirate ship in the theatre

Sexy croc

Mermaid leaps into the sky

Mermaid

Time fairy

Fire fairy

Pirates (and a monkey!)

Second star on the right

Some of the acts were very good and others were jaw dropping. I wish I was quick enough to make notes and name the members of the Minxettes troupe that appeared, but I was too busy enjoying the show. I’m glad my friend mentioned that Misse uses a lot of particle effects so that I knew to adjust my graphics for her mermaid segment, which was breathtaking. And yes, it should be said that there were some Second Life irritations like lag and slow rezzing. The overall show was so good that those didn’t distract much.

As I was camming around between numbers, I saw a poster advertising that the show was looking for performers. The skill required is far more than the “spin around a pole choosing from a menu” style, as the artists provide their own sets and choreography. Wow. How I wish I had the talent for that, but clumsy me can barely jump onto a poseball without breaking a virtual nail.

The Lady Garden Cabaret is located at http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Pegasoi/122/111/222 and I believe their next regular show is December 18th. Stop by and smack the subscriber to get updates on future performances or visit the Lady Garden Cabaret blog. I’ll make a point of going back with plenty of $L to stuff into the tip jars for the talented artists. They reawakened my sense of wonder and potential in Second Life.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2015 in Art in SL

 

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Second Life road trip: Heterocera Atoll part 1

The SL mainland doesn’t have the best reputation. With no zoning laws and limited control over the terrain and atmosphere, the mainland continents can be chaotic. That chaos can hide gems, though, which is one of the reasons I enjoy living there. Today I dismantled my skybox, leaving a platform and a large box to contain objects owned by Jakob: windchimes, a lotus pond, and lots of bouquets of red roses. I’ll arrange them neatly and give myself a space to sit and reflect until his account is deactivated. I still have my office on ground level as well as a large, landscaped parcel next to the road on the Heterocera Atoll continent. The notion of cutting off part of my parcel to bring down my tier payment is distressing, so I’m making little changes and maybe I’ll be ready by the end of the year.

In the meantime, I started flying around to see what bits of fun I could find on Heterocera. (I adjusted Windlight settings and sometimes applied a Darken filter for detail, but no additional editing has been done to the images below. WYSIWYG.) First I stopped for a coffee at the Damocles Diner in the Spini region. There’s seating for standard and tiny avatars, a nice assortment of refreshments and news boxes, but the swaying train above kept me from lingering.

Damocles Diner

The diner is below an abandoned and incomplete railway line. If you’re a transportation fan, Heterocera has railways, navigable water, a pod tour system, and many public roads. I won’t claim the lag is good — it’s shitty — but you can pull out a vehicle of your choice and get around. If you fly, the sky isn’t overwhelmed with ban lines but you’ll have to dodge skyboxes and towering structures.

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One of the unusual structures on Heterocera is the Great Northern Wall. This is a Linden build; you can walk/ride along the top or through a tunnel inside. Resident builds line the Wall and you can visit the (unofficial?) Great Wall center in the Ziczac region.

Great Wall center

While you won’t see many avatars in my photos, Heterocera is far from empty. There is a lot of abandoned land and in many areas the population density is low, but some places draw crowds. This is a shot of the map with green dots representing people, taken on Saturday afternoon SL time.

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On the SL mainland, each landowner can terraform her parcel only within a limited range of values (which is why I have a steep hill between my office and the back of my property that I can’t flatten). Between odd shapes cut by the various roads, waterways, and railroad tracks and the challenging elevations, residents have had to devise interesting solutions to build at ground level. I snapped a shot of one of the mountains on Heterocera; the peak is the highest point on the SL mainland:

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If you travel along the roadways like I often do, you’ll see a lot of open land. Some of it is truly vacant, but often the resident has a skybox hovering above for more privacy and less concern about the uneven ground. I admire those who have risen to the challenge, though!

Each SL premium account comes with an allocation of 512 square meters worth of free tier, the amount you would pay Linden Lab as a monthly rental fee for mainland space. I know a few people who don’t take advantage of that because they rent or own private islands. Other times, a resident might own mainland space but rarely use it. I had to laugh when I came across this building with the self-aware marquee.

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Sometimes a tiny parcel of land may be all you need, as in the case of this touching little roadside memorial.

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I can’t explore Heterocera without talking a little bit about the Second Life Railroad and the Virtual Railway Consortium, but I’m no expert. I marvel at some of their builds with all the wonder of visiting my childhood neighbor’s basement, where a detailed model train setup filled an entire room. If you’re a train aficionado, the tracks are here for your use! You can even find freebie train givers along the route. I took a little break at one of the stations.

Virtual railway station

Below is a map that was posted there. Further along in my journey, I found a sign by the VRC showing “Second Life Rail Road Traffic” on the continent, with lights indicating where pods and trains — automated ones, I’m assuming — could be found. There were nine pods and three trains active on the sign at the time.

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Because of all these public works builds (literally in most cases, the Linden Department of Public Works), there is a lot of public space on Heterocera. You’ll find piers, picnic areas beside the road, and even little rez zones. I pulled out some furniture to test the access. As a landless avatar, you could do worse than to find a pretty seaside spot to unpack your boxes.

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I’ll continue this trip when the mood strikes. After all, you haven’t seen the hobo lands yet, or Pyri, or the crater, or the temple, or the….

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2015 in Art in SL, Side Topics

 

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Friday night in virtual worlds

It’s been a rough week: I haven’t felt well, the news has been lousy, and I’ve been frustrated and lonely in my online worlds. I’m bored in ArcheAge, though I’m finding some amusement in traveling the oceans, killing sea monsters for drops to upgrade my clipper. Other than that? Blah.

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Second Life hasn’t been much better. SL is a huge space and new users have always complained that it’s hard to find and meet people in it. Well, let me assure newcomers that it’s not much easier for someone shy who has been there a decade! I jumped around the Destination Guide, often finding myself alone in a sim. The biggest crowds were at sexually oriented sims; I don’t shy away from those and I’ve met some great friends at venues with names that would instantly stop my mother’s heart, but I’m not ready for that sort of interaction. I visited a couple of the formal dance venues but I’m a lag snob and a room full of flexi gowns is a disaster. Standing at the side of the dance floor in my light(render)weight mesh gown, I felt like a prissy wallflower. Hmmph. I’m open to meeting people but also wary, as my heartache about Jakob comes to the surface easily when I’m in SL. Someone who meets me now might get a tough facade or thin ice over raging sadness instead of my normal personality.

So, I was delighted tonight when I got a group notice from Hesperia Templemore announcing an imminent performance by Red Heaven featuring Joel Eilde. I hadn’t heard Joel perform in the past but Templemore has never disappointed me and I headed right over. The crowd averaged 50 avatars, which is a considerable number for one space, but his stream was clear and the music was enjoyable. I tipped liberally — the artist, GM/host Bee, and the house — and I hope to go to another show there soon. (Related real world anecdote: I met my husband for lunch at a sandwich shop on Thursday and as we left, I wanted to tip the young woman who had been playing the guitar and singing in the corner, “if she has someplace I can put it,” I said. My husband said that she did, described the white can to me, and added, “After being in SL this long, I can find a tip jar!”)

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I grooved to the music and had a couple of conversations, and all in all, that’s a pretty good night in SL.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Art in SL, Gaming

 

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Paris and how we get breaking news now

On Saturday night I visited Paris in Second Life, joining the impromptu gathering of people from all over the world.

Paris Nov 14 2015

Avatars wore pins and held candles or signs showing their support for the people of Paris. Many dressed in blue, white, and red. There was also one avatar in a party hat, bathing suit, and rubber ducky float… but it is Second Life, after all. I stayed for a while until someone tried to pick me up. (I know it’s hard to open conversations — I stink at it, which is why I wandered the grid alone after this though I would have liked some company — but ffs, it was completely inappropriate to pull out cheesy opening lines in virtual Paris the night after the attacks.)

Remember Paris

When news about the attacks broke on Friday, my husband and I were finishing dinner. I glanced at my phone before we went up to our home office for an evening of listening to music together and playing separate games. I flipped by a headline about attacks in Paris in feedly; we live in a world of unrest, and I thought nothing more than, “I’ll read that later.” Just after that, my husband got a text from his mom asking if he was watching the news about Paris. I tried to load CNN.com on my computer and got an error. Fine. Tried BBC.co.uk and found a short video that we watched. Eventually I arranged three windows on my side monitor: a subreddit of Paris attack news, Twitter open to hashtag #ParisAttacks, and the live feed from France 24 in English. The Twitter feed gave me information before the anchors and the subreddit provided other sources, but the France 24 coverage was competent and non-alarmist even in the midst of tragic uncertainty.

I tried different TV news channels the next morning. BBC World News and Al Jazeera America had consistent informational coverage. CNN had a report from Christopher Dickey as I flipped by — my path crossed with his 20 years ago at a magazine site I managed and he’s still helping Americans understand Paris — so that piece was good. Then I went to Fox News. Oh holy hell. Instead of “Attacks in Paris” and “Breaking News” , which other networks had used as identifiers, Fox had a big yellow “ALERT” banner like police tape and the headline “Bloodbath in Paris”. I only watched for a few minutes as speculation and opinion were presented as news, with the ticker at the bottom of the screen pulling out the most explosive, ridiculous quotes. It was disturbing, especially since that’s the channel my husband’s mom and many other Americans watch for news.

When I was a kid, a crisis like that would have meant a breaking news alert interrupting the TV program that, most likely, my whole family would have been watching together. They probably wouldn’t have cut away completely, but offered regular updates through the Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas as the night continued. By the time the first Gulf War started, we had CNN and 24 hour coverage. Now there are more news sources accessible all the time from almost everywhere, but many have tried to be competitive with sensationalism, pandering, and divisive opinions presented as fact. It takes some savvy and self-awareness to choose a mostly neutral source or one that challenges our own view of the world.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2015 in In the News

 

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