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Roundup: Anomaly, al-Asaad, Ashley Madison, Project Sansar, and a personal update

I have a bunch of small commentaries floating around in my brain and one massive post underway, so I think it’s time for a roundup. First though, a film. Anomaly takes place in the 1960s and is hard to explain. There’s a near-miss comet, an astronaut, a scientist, and the women they love. The pace drags a bit at times, but it’s very well made for a Kickstarter-financed independent project and it’s also a selection in the Sploid Short Film Festival.

 

Khaled al-Asaad

If you know the names of any archaeologists, I suggest that al-Asaad should top the list above grave robbers like Indiana Jones and Howard Carter (no matter how much we enjoy what they gave us, both fictional and real). In the American educational system, archaeology is a subset of anthropology; my university anthro department had an annual dig in the Middle East, a number of projects in the US, and a staff that was 40% archaeologists. I can understand the dedication it must take to work for a lifetime on discovering and protecting our shared cultural heritage. I can’t begin to fathom the resolve, courage, and selflessness Dr. al-Asaad showed in refusing to reveal the location of artifacts to criminal savages.

Ashley Madison hack

Is anyone else feeling ambivalent about this? I’ve seen vicious comment threads on articles about the hack and there certainly isn’t a consensus of opinion. Personally, I think it’s awful that private information is being revealed by the hackers. Infidelity can be devastating, but isn’t that an issue for the people involved and not the whole Internet? Ashley Madison is vile for a number of reasons, yet I can’t fault them for making money off an existing market; if you spent time on any Internet dating sites — as I did off and on in the late ’90s and early ’00s — you know that married people looking for a fling on the side can be found anywhere. AM grouped them together, tossed in some fake profiles to make the site more appealing, and made as much cash as possible off of it. I hope the company is sued into oblivion for their lax security and for the lie about completely deleting users who paid for that service, which allegedly inspired the hackers.

But on the other hand, the data-loving nerd in me is hungry for the details coming out about how many idiots used their work and government email addresses to register on the site, and sure, part of me wants to pump my fist when yet another “voice of morality” is revealed to be lying, cheating scum.  When private celebrity photos were leaked, I chose to look away. I won’t ignore the news stories that come out of this hack, but I won’t be combing the data for the names of friends, relatives, or colleagues, as I know some people are doing. That’s not my business. Some tips for anyone it may benefit: if you’re doing something on the Internet that you don’t want revealed, for heaven’s sake, use a throwaway email address! Buy a reloadable Visa gift card at a drug store if a credit card is required, and register with a fake name, address, and phone number. Use Tor or a heavily secured browser, lock your smartphone or get a burner phone, and don’t forget to turn off automatic backups. And, maybe you shouldn’t trust a company with a business model based on lying.

Linden Lab and Project Sansar

Someone sent me a note asking my opinion on Project Sansar and I really don’t have much to offer. I haven’t written much about Second Life or the next Linden Lab project in months. With my vacation and then accident, plus Jakob’s illness, I simply haven’t been spending much time in SL. My enthusiasm is currently ebbing, but I’ve had an SL avatar for 10 years now and know that cycles of excitement and boredom are normal for me. I’m sure the next time I go back in-world and explore, I’ll be struck by the creativity and beauty again. That said, there are SL bloggers who are covering the topic to death and back. I won’t be one of the early invitees to try Sansar as I’m neither a creator nor have I sought out a relationship with the Lindens, but I’ll be excited to see what’s there once I can have a look.

Personal stuff

Jakob is conscious and talking after a blood sugar crisis sent him to the hospital over a week ago. However, the doctor says that cancer is now active and growing in his stomach, brain, and liver. He is fighting pneumonia and cannot swallow solid food yet. Since Jakob doesn’t know or acknowledge that he still has cancer, he is demanding to go home (no way) and making life hell for his sister, the only person who visits or helps him. This is something I know well from the two weeks I spent with him in May: his illness has stripped away most of his kindness and intellect, leaving a selfish, arrogant, paranoid man. Those qualities were always part of him but now they are prominent. Even though this is not his fault, it’s a huge challenge to sustain empathy when he’s being an asshole. I’ll admit that I’m relieved he isn’t well enough to read or write yet, but I feel for his sister. Her latest text to me was anguished both from concern about his health and hurt from his behavior toward her. It’s possible to care about him and also want to tell him to get stuffed.

As for me, I took my dog for a short walk today! I’ve been cleared to put 25% of normal weight on the leg that had a tibial plateau fracture, which means that I wear a thigh-to-ankle hinged brace and I lean heavily on my walker whenever I step on that side. It’s slow and very tiring, but I know I need to rebuild my stamina. Of course, my wheelchair is still a necessary tool for longer travels or when I need to use my hands. I start physical therapy next week.

 

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VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 2)

The afternoon session “Educators and the Second Life Viewer”, led by Oz Linden, wasn’t a topic that had direct impact on me, but I was curious.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one:

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Oz began with an overview of how the Lab does viewer development and release and then the questions came flooding in. Most of the concerns involved dealing with viewer updates in an institutional setting, where students sitting down to use machines lacked administrator rights and had to wait for someone else to install the software. At a busy school, the update schedule of the tech support staff can be terribly out of sync with SL releases.

Some worried about potentially losing inventory when testing new viewer candidates (you won’t; it’s stored on the server, not your client viewer). Others asked about screencasting or screen sharing tools. The discussion indicated that other tools do it better, which perhaps didn’t satisfy everyone’s needs. People asked about hair alphas and alpha conflicts in general, which Oz said were always on the LL bug list. A question came up about how to transfer settings from one computer to another (move the settings.xml file). There was a discussion around how to create a shared whiteboard in SL. HTML 5 support will be coming in a few months, which might make it easier to use media-on-a-prim to create a whiteboard, and one educator suggested using Twiddla for that implementation. In the discussion of media-on-a-prim, Oz mentioned Quicktime for Windows and Flash as being difficult to support in-world (personal opinion: they’re outdated and shouldn’t be supported, but we need a media option).  Someone asked about getting an MSI instead of an exe to make installation in labs easier.  I’m sure Oz was flooded with emails mentioning that an MSI can be generated directly from Visual Studio by choosing “Create an Installer Package” from the Project.

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People also asked about social media sharing, rendervolumeLODFactor settings, inventory management (!), an export feature (nope), and more. Oz also mentioned render costs and the setting being tested that won’t render avatars above a certain weight.  Not that I have a horse in that race. It was a very informative talk, with a couple of other Lindens jumping in to add details, and I hope it was useful for them as well. The session took place during dinner time, so my software engineer husband was listening with me and often yelling responses to questions across the room; I’m glad my microphone fiasco happened later in the evening.

Speaking of which…

Next, I attended the “Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities” session, where I was able to hear the first two panelists and a small amount of the third. My write-up of this session is limited as I committed an accidental faux pas (open mic in a voice-conducted panel) and lost my notes in the flurry of embarrassment afterward.

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Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) touched on library topics — as you might guess from her SL name — but also referenced Alvin Toffler and talked about users as prosumers: both consuming and creating content. She spoke about how important it is to vet our own content sources for credibility and to avoid placing ourselves in an echo chamber where we only hear our existing views reflected back at us.

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Renee Brock-Richmond (Zinnia Zauber) gave a presentation centered on creating an “authentic” avatar and reinforcing your personal branding. You might be able to tell from the slide above that she is all about color. She talked about different ways to use color in-world — not only for clothing — and about creating a consistent avatar, including profile, that is authentic to yourself. I found that very thought-provoking. I wanted to agree and argue, so it’s something I might pick up in a future post.

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Next up was Beth O’Connell (Beth Ghostraven). She talked about useful communication techniques and tools. She also shared a helpful notecard entitled “Professional Education and Library Resources in Virtual Worlds” that has links to SL and OpenSim areas, mailing lists and groups, and websites. Unfortunately, my gaffe happened during her session. I missed part of it while talking and after being removed from the sim.

I completely missed the presentation by Joyce Bettancourt (Rhiannon Chatnoir), which was disappointing because I had enjoyed the session by her Vesuvius Group colleague so much earlier in the day.

Not being one who can shake off things like that (despite the wise counsel of Dr. Taylor Swift), I didn’t attend the session “Real Democracy in a Virtual World” or the Quill & Quarrel performance later that evening. Today, I’ll be attending sessions from my desktop computer, which has no microphone whatsoever.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 2

It’s the second day of the 2015 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference! One thing that I can’t help noticing: my Kay avatar has existed in Second Life for five years, which is essentially “middle aged” for this world. At VWBPE sessions, it’s not unusual for more than half of the avatars to be older than her. The amount of combined in-world experience during some discussions is awfully impressive.

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Starting the day with a cappuccino near the main auditorium.

I’m still seeing anxiety around a couple of items from Ebbe’s keynote during many Q&A sessions and side conversations. Poor fellow; he can’t sneeze without us analyzing it to death and wondering what it will mean for meeeeeee (I do it too!). People are concerned about his explanation that the first build tool for the Next Generation Platform (NGP) will be Autodesk’s Maya, which is very expensive and quite difficult to use. Though he did quickly say that support will be provided for other tools, including the shareware products many of us use, I can understand why it bothered a lot of people. We want to be involved in the NGP from the beginning and that high barrier of entry has diminished the potential alpha pool to a tiny privileged and knowledgeable puddle.

The other concern I’ve heard expressed numerous times is the move from Linden Scripting Language (LSL) to C# as the coding language for NGP. Honestly, I think this is a terrific move and my software engineer husband nearly burst into spontaneous applause. C# is much more robust and learning it is a portable skill. If you learned LSL, I suspect you’ll be brilliant at C#. There are a variety of free resources to learn C# online, from this Coursera class in Beginning Game Programming with C# (started 2/23), to a Microsoft Virtual Academy Programming in C# Jump Start self-paced video course (to be retired at the end of April, so hurry!), to the full set of notes and slides from Jon Jagger’s 5-day C# programming course, and many more.

On a positive note, I’m seeing a lot of excitement around Ebbe’s mention of lowering land costs: decreasing “property taxes” and increasing “sales taxes”.  Yes please.

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The first session I attended today was “Reconstructing and Navigating the Crossroads of Community” by this morning’s featured speaker, Pamela Broviak. She talked about community creation through history, based on the human drive to fulfill the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She considered communities from prehistory to Egypt, the Iroquois Confederacy, and early land distribution methods in the United States (emphasizing the importance of land ownership and how the US method diverged from the European). From there, she explored Second Life history and the differences made by zoning over time.

Pam explained that as an engineer, she is usually occupied with the lower levels of the pyramid, but her time in Second Life has made her more aware of incorporating the higher levels into her work. In fact, she no longer sees the list of needs as a hierarchy, but as a circle where lessons and experiences flow.

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The second session I was able to attend was “Gaming and Machinima at the Crossroads of Gender and Culture”. This topic was less controversial among an audience of education-related people in SL than it would be, say, on a gaming subreddit. Jakob got back from his second chemotherapy session in the middle of this session, so my attention was split for a while, but afterward I filled in what I missed by reading the notes that Sonicity kindly provided along with all of her slides.

While touching on some recent controversies around women in gaming, Sonicity talked about the violent and sexual content in popular games and what research has shown about the difference between the play styles of boys and girls. She also mentioned how “authentic storytelling” can be a game-changer (literally) and that women and girls have agency: they are a huge factor in the gaming market and can use that power. The discussion that followed was mostly about the gaming experience for younger children.

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Next, I visited the panel discussion “Quill & Quarrel: REAL Theater in a VIRTUAL World”. Over the years I’ve seen live productions in Second Life by a couple of groups, the Avatar Repertory Theater and Basilique Performing Arts Company, but I haven’t attended a performance from the Quill & Quarrel Theater.  I stayed for a while. It was a bit like a Comic-Con panel for a show I didn’t know, where the performers reminisced among themselves about past seasons I hadn’t seen. I’d really like to see something by Q&Q someday; it looks like they have A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming this spring. The panel was not as informative or useful as I had hoped, however, so I took my dog for a walk during the second half.

Then it was time for a shift as a greeter, welcoming visitors to the VWBPE Exhibition area.  I chose a quieter area; I want to help, but I am not social. Still, I had a couple of nice little conversations during my shift. The Exhibition area is certainly worth a visit. The displays are far more interesting than your usual conference booths, as you can see from the photos below:

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I have one more hour as a greeter this evening, but otherwise I’ll be offline. Tomorrow is my busy day, with six sessions I want to attend and one more greeter shift. Can’t wait!

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Gaming, Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference, day 1

The 8th Annual Virtual World Best Practices in Education conference started earlier today. Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg kicked things off with the opening keynote. The amphitheatre started filling up more than an hour before the event.

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I should be jaded after almost ten years in Second Life, but it was still exciting to see five Lindens on the map. This year I wasn’t able to take notes (one of the many advantages of a virtual world conference is that I could attend while cooking dinner) and I don’t see a video of the keynote online yet, but there are excellent posts about it from Daniel Voyager and Ciaran Laval.

Update: here’s the video!

Unfortunately, I missed the discussion on gamification that I planned to attend after that, and I hope to find a summary.

In the evening, I attended two sessions from the tech-savvy educators at the University of Idaho. The first was a hands-on workshop entitled “The Importance of Space”.  We visited three different environments and played with blocks that had some odd physical qualities. I had the pleasure of trying to figure out the blocks with Gentle Heron of Virtual Ability; we both approached the challenge with a similar mindset, though I’m not sure she laughed as loudly as I did when we discovered that if you sat on a block, you would immediately faceplant on the floor. The discussion afterward addressed how we felt in each space, emotionally and physically, and then connected that to principles of design. It’s useful to remember that in a virtual world our meeting spaces can be anything we want them to be.

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After the workshop, we went over to the University of Idaho online campus in Idahonia for a research presentation entitled “Comparison of Teen Gamers and Non-Gamers in A Virtual Learning Simulation”. You can find that paper on page 29 of this issue of the Journal of Virtual Studies (it’s easiest to download the PDF and read it offline). The presentation itself was interesting but there was great value in the Q&A session afterwards, where people compared notes on some of the nuts and bolts of virtual teaching experiences: how to get buy-in from local schools when SL has a reputation as an adult space, funding and bandwidth issues, and the advantages of online simulations. I really enjoyed watching educators sharing ideas and links.

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Tomorrow I have three sessions that I’m hoping to attend, plus I have two volunteer shifts as a greeter. Friday’s schedule is packed with seven sessions I’d like to see. At physical world conferences I usually hit burn-out and people overload by the second or third day; it’s not so bad for an introvert when I can put down my headset and step away if I’m feeling crowded.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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VWBPE conference this week!

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VWBPE info kiosk at my office

The Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference runs from Wednesday through Saturday this week. I’m not an educator but this is a conference I strongly recommend. Most of the year, I read articles about how virtual worlds might be used to teach, inform, increase empathy, improve health, etc — usually based on studies run by researchers on a few dozen college undergraduates. At this conference, I get to hear from people who aren’t just speculating; they’re doing the work. They’re using Second Life and Open Grid to teach academic classes for teenage and adult students. They’re creating interactive virtual spaces for people to learn about healthy choices and medical conditions. They’re performing live theatre and music and shooting films. They’re dealing with issues like distracted students, varied technical abilities, and diverse cultures and languages. They’re building their own supplementary welcome/tutorial experiences to help people new to the world.

The conference is free and you don’t need to be an educator to attend, so if any of the sessions interest you, stop by. Some of the talks, panels, and machinima will be streamed live if you can’t attend in-world. I’m working a few shifts as a greeter and mentor, and I hope to clear my schedule so I can get to the following sessions. All times are in SLT, which is GMT -7.

Wednesday

  • 13:00 – Virtual Education in Second Life & In the Future: keynote talk by Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg
  • 14:00 – Gamification
  • 16:00 – The Importance of Space
  • 18:00 – Comparison of Teen Gamers and Non-Gamers in a Virtual Learning Simulation

Thursday

  • 7:00 – Reconstructing and Navigating the Crossroads of Community
  • 9:00 – Gaming and Machinima at the Crossroads of Gender and Culture
  • 10:00 – Quill & Quarrel: REAL Theater in a VIRTUAL World

Friday

  • 7:00 – Creating Dinosaurs & Earning Badges
  • 8:05 – Transcending Culture in Global Settings
  • 11:00 – How Do Virtual Experiences Alter Users’ Visual Cognition?
  • 14:05 – Educators and the Second Life Viewer
  • 15:00 – Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities
  • 17:00 – Real Democracy in a Virtual World

Saturday

  • 7:00 – 7 Years of Adaptation and Renewal in Second Life
  • 16:00 – Building Global Communities through Virtual Worlds

There are many others; see the full calendar with descriptions here, including social and machinima events. There’s also an exhibit space to visit in your spare time. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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8th Annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference

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This year’s conference is only a couple weeks away, so now’s the time to clear space on your calendar. If you’re interested in how educators are using persistent virtual worlds, this is the place to be. You can get a taste by watching video from some of last year’s sessions. I’ve attended for the past couple years and this time I’m volunteering as a mentor and greeter.

To see this year’s schedule, go to the VWBPE calendar and use the arrow next to “go to date” to look ahead at March. So many of the sessions look good! Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg kicks off the conference with the opening keynote at 1:00pm SLT on Wednesday, March 18th and the list of featured speakers is interesting.

There is no cost to attend. Some sessions take place in Second Life and some on the AvaconGrid: how to access the conference.  If you haven’t used SL or OpenSim before, accounts are free but it will take some time to download a viewer and set up an account. (Note that if you’re an SL resident and want to attend the Avacon sessions, you must use a viewer version that can also access OpenSim and you will need to set up a new account there.)

There is a page about conference etiquette on the VWBPE site and I’ll add a couple items. The keynote addresses and some other events can be so well-attended that the sims are full, but you can still attend: simply go to a nearby area and move your camera to see and hear the speaker. If you are wearing a lot of scripts or have high render weight, a conference volunteer may ask you to remove items, so it’s easiest to dress for low lag before attending.

Hope to see you there!

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2015 in Learning, Research

 

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Random roundup for Monday

I’m fighting a cold today. Blah! Dayquil isn’t helping with deep thoughts, so I’ll offer a trio of shallow ones:

  • Earlier this month, WIRED had an essay about wearables that could have come straight from my brain: Wearables Are Totally Failing the People Who Need Them Most. The author points out that developers are going after the fitness market or trendy applications rather than creating products for people with chronic illnesses who need tracking and reminder methods. I mentioned a couple ideas related to that here.
  • On my Christmas wish list is the book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman. Coleman is an anthropologist who began studying Anonymous in 2008. I’ve read reviews on Slate and The Nation and I’m curious about her methodology and her perspective. Whenever I browse through 4chan or read about actions of some Anons, I find my anthropologist cap slipping into place as I try to see both the details and the bigger picture. I’m hoping her book is well done, thoughtful, and balanced.
  • My husband spotted a Linden in the wild over the weekend. For people unacquainted with Second Life, this means that an employee of the company that runs SL was spotted in-world. Other people I know report seeing them more often, but neither of us have stumbled across a Linden online — outside of a meeting/conference or taking care of a service ticket for me — in over 8 years. It was strangely exciting. Photos were taken.
 
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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Side Topics

 

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