Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Open Source followup

There is an interesting technical discussion of the SL Open Source project over on Ethan Zuckerman’s blog: “Unpacking Linden’s ‘Open Source’ announcement”.  He makes some good points both pro and con — the main one being that Linden Lab is actually not going far enough.

This is from the comments section, in response to a daft and ill-informed Luddite poster:

My recent critique of Second Life has been not so much that the software isn’t open source but that it’s a platform monopoly. Should you, as a content creator, find yourself on the wrong side of the Lindens, your content can’t be easily moved to another world. Given the governance issues you allude to and the problems the Lindens are having with abuse, I don’t think it’s hard to imagine scenarios where someone might decide they no longer wanted to contribute to this specific universe.

I’m less worried about sharding than you are. It’s one of the things I’m most interested in with protocols like Croquet – what happens when you can run different spaces on different servers, each with their own rules regarding intellectual property, behavior, abuse, etc.? It’s a bit different from the goal you propose – how do you build the best possible World – and turns into “how do you build a great set of interconnected, interoperable worlds”. You’ve got a very valid point – this might not have the same social dynamics as the one world SL currently has.

I’m reluctant to post over there, not with a certain unreasonable, ignorant technophobe trying to sound important in the comments section.  But I’ll say this:  Ethan’s point is a good one.  And frankly, I think it’s a step that Linden Lab might actually take one day.  They’ve already made their direction clear in the way they’ve opened free registration to the world and done some other minor adjustments trying to link Second Life to the web.  What’s to prevent them from allowing someone to build their own server, install the Second Life software and link to the grid as an independent sim? 

On the one hand, it would open the door to virtually unlimited land ownership for tycoons like Anshe Chung, but it could also devalue virtual property in Second Life.  (I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not).  I would be much less afraid of griefers owning their own servers or engineering harm to the rest of us — as Thoreau noted in Civil Disobedience, the best method for quelling dissent and rebellion is to give the dissenters property within the system.  They then become a part of that system.  And ultimately I would think that Linden Lab would retain some form of authentication control over who linked to the main grid and what they were able to do, anyway.

The other offshoot of such a thing would be scores of independent Second Lifes cropping up around the internet.  They would use the SL software and become completely independent operations, much like the old persistent servers using the pirated Ultima Online software ten years ago.  One would hope the parallel would be closer to that we see with Neverwinter Nights persistent servers, where the server owner focuses exclusively on a particular style of play such as PvP or roleplaying.  It could be viable, and it could operate without the manacles of over-population and questionable change control we see now.  The biggest downside, of course, is that the central core of Second Life — that is, virtual businesses — would cease to attract new residents.  Without the critical mass of 20,000 concurrent users, small businesses would simply not be profitable.

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January 17, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 2 Comments

The Economics of Information: Pwnage on the Geek Scale

There have been mixed reactions around Second Life to the Linden announcement that the SL client would be released as Open Source. Some don’t understand it. Some fear that it will only provide another avenue for griefing or account hacking. Others have siezed upon the announcement as another soapbox opportunity to make asses of themselves by revealing their complete ignorance of what this change means to us.

The official Linden explanation is two parts corporate-speak and one part meaningful fact: the hyperbole about “richer communication channels”, buzzwords about “ecosystem” and “compelling experience” are what I call “BayAreaspeak”, having lived there for a couple of years. What is truly important is under their heading of “Security”. Ironically, the verbiage they use here is nearly identical to the words my head IT guy spoke when I asked his opinion of Open Source software:

This move will eventually increase the security of Second Life since there are now more people looking at the code, highlighting potential exploits and providing bug fixes and updates.

My IT guy, Mike, was talking about Linux. In his opinion, the Linux operating system is hands-down superior to Microsoft Windows for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that the Linux community has been extremely quick to identify and patch security loopholes. (Mike cited worrisome numbers – of some 300 reported bugs and security loopholes in Windows last year, Redmond patched a little more than 100). You have a thousand heads working on something from a thousand different perspectives, and I’d warrant you’ll spot things that fifty programmers inside a tight corporate structure, working under the unified corporate change control process, will never see.

Personally, I think the parallel between the Linden move and the Linux vs. Windows war is a very appropriate one. Microsoft has a death grip on the Windows OS. Their business practices have been exhaustively reported-upon in the past, when antitrust lawsuits revealed their bullying practices of forcing their software on computer manufacturers. If you want “elitist” control over software, just follow the Microsoft plan. Build a proprietary system and force users toward your product, regardless of its swiss cheese security and self-bloating internal processes. If you want an example of a case that has destroyed the advantages of free enterprise and innovation, look no further than Microsoft Windows.

Then there is Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management scheme. From ZDNet (publishers of PC Magazine and other popular computer publications):

By providing free use of the DRM technology and the accompanying toolkit, Microsoft hopes to make Windows Media audio and video formats more popular with record labels and eventually consumers. The strategy follows marginally successful partnerships with device makers and content creators designed to further the adoption of the format.

Sounds ok, does it? Just another marketing plan? Can you spell “monopoly”?

Giving DRM technology away for free–particularly a version that’s as good as Microsoft’s–also makes it that much more difficult for other companies to compete. Already, for example, RealNetworks has found it difficult to sell its server-based content creation and streaming software when Microsoft bundles Windows Media technologies for free with Windows 2000 Server and the forthcoming Windows 2003 Server.

Translation: Open Source is the kryptonite of huge, bullying monopolies. It is the antidote for lethargic corporate policies on spyware and a spark that can feed free enterprise and innovation — not to mention it can make sophisticated professional software available to Joe Computeruser for little or nothing. It’s the penicillin against elitism, contrary to what a couple of ignorant agitators may want you to believe.

So how does that relate to Linden Lab and the Second Life client? Simply this: by releasing the client as Open Source and allowing creative programmers to build custom variations of the client, the Lab has acknowledged the advantages of open distribution, the cost efficiencies of allowing other programmers to do the grunt work (as opposed to, say, doubling their own programming staff) and set a course away from the arch-controlling monopolistic domination that Microsoft has in the larger world of software products. In a nutshell, it’s a move of genius. Linden Lab wins, Second Life citizens win, everybody wins.

To continue my analogies to the larger world of software publication, let’s ask another important question: What in the history of Open Source concepts has demonstrated that it is a viable concept? What successes have come from Open Source projects? This is an easy one:

The Firefox browser and its email sister, Thunderbird, are both Open Source products of Mozilla — direct competitors of MSIE and Outlook. I’ve been using Firefox for a couple of years, and I’m addicted to tabbed browsing. Over 20 million copies of Firefox have been downloaded since it was published. I love not worrying about the worms and browser hijackers that infected my MS Internet Explorer so many times. Firefox is to IE as a new Cadillac is to a 1968 Volkswagen. And it’s free.

I was faced with a minor need to use an Access database some time ago, and was pointed to Open Office – an Open Source version of Microsoft Office suite. It not only does the same job, but it has innovative features that Microsoft hasn’t gotten around to yet.

Can’t quite swing the $600 or more for a new copy of Photoshop CS? Try GIMP, a free Open Source variation on the same graphics program.

I mentioned Linux already – but it deserves more in-depth discussion. Linux is not one product produced by one company. It is a suite of tools that are produced in a dizzying number of variations by a large and passionate community. Find something that doesn’t work well? Download a tool to fix it. Want to run a Windows application that chokes if you run it “native” under Linux? No problem – Linux will also run Windows as a sub-application. How cool is that? It’s pwnage on the Geek Scale: make Windows your slave. Tired of bugs and bloat and Microsoft’s refusal to respond to security problems? Linux may be your answer. Not keen on getting so deep into something so technical? Easy – get yourself a copy of PCLinuxOS. I’m planning on doing this before Vista comes out. It’s my own personal rebellion against the true elitists – those monopolists in Redmond. I’m certainly no technical geek – I’m a business manager. But I’m not adverse to learning and that’s all it takes to cope with change.

Open Source doesn’t just involve computer software, though. The concept has spread into the business world. The idea is that open sharing of information does not harm the sharing host — in the long run it actually helps through spreading interest in a product or idea, creating a passionate user community and spurring innovation. Look no further than Wikipedia for a great example of how open information sharing can be a boon that spreads far beyond the narrow borders of the original idea. A million minds feeding one idea — the implications are breath-taking.

Wired Magazine: Open Source Everywhere

But software is just the beginning. Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists have embraced open source methods in genomics and informatics, building massive databases to genetically sequence E. coli, yeast, and other workhorses of lab research. NASA has adopted open source principles as part of its Mars mission, calling on volunteer “clickworkers” to identify millions of craters and help draw a map of the Red Planet. There is open source publishing: With Bruce Perens, who helped define open source software in the ’90s, Prentice Hall is publishing a series of computer books open to any use, modification, or redistribution, with readers’ improvements considered for succeeding editions. There are library efforts like Project Gutenberg, which has already digitized more than 6,000 books, with hundreds of volunteers typing in, page by page, classics from Shakespeare to Stendhal; at the same time, a related project, Distributed Proofreading, deploys legions of copy editors to make sure the Gutenberg texts are correct. There are open source projects in law and religion. There’s even an open source cookbook.

Change can be scary. That’s part of human nature. And I’m sure much of the negative reaction to this move by Linden Lab is based on fear, especially from those who don’t understand what “Open Source” means. Change is twice as scary when it’s beyond your comprehension. But maybe this will help:

Open Source Definition

What if you had the right to get a free upgrade whenever your software needed it? What if, when you switched from a Mac to a PC, you could switch software versions for free? What if, when the software doesn’t work or isn’t powerful enough, you can have it improved or even fix it yourself? What if the software was still maintained even if the company that produced it went out of business? What if you can use your software on your office workstation, and your home desktop computer, and your portable laptop, instead of just one computer? You’d probably still be using the software you paid for years ago. These are some of the rights that Open Source gives you.

The Open Source Definition is a bill of rights for the computer user. It defines certain rights that a software license must grant you to be certified as Open Source. Those who don’t make their programs Open Source are finding it difficult to compete with those who do, as users gain a new appreciation of rights they always should have had. Programs like the Linux operating system and Netscape’s web browser have become extremely popular, displacing other software with more restrictive licenses. Companies that use Open Source software have the advantage of its very rapid development, often by several collaborating companies, and much of it contributed by individuals who simply need an improvement to serve their own needs.

The volunteers who made products like Linux possible are only there, and the companies are only able to cooperate, because of the rights that come with Open Source. The average computer programmer would feel stupid if he put lots of work into a program, only to have the owner of the program sell his improvement without giving anything back. Those same programmers feel comfortable contributing to Open Source because they are assured of these rights:

  • The right to make copies of the program, and distribute those copies.
  • The right to have access to the software’s source code, a necessary preliminary before you can change it.
  • The right to make improvements to the program.

These rights are important to the software contributor because they keep all contributors at the same level relative to each other. Everyone who wants to is allowed to sell an Open Source program, so prices will be low and development to reach new markets will be rapid. Anyone who invests the time to build knowledge in an Open Source program can support it, and this provides users with the option of providing their own support, or the economy of a number of competing support providers. Any programmer can tailor an Open Source program to specific markets in order to reach new customers. People who do these things aren’t compelled to pay royalties or license fees.

The reason for the success of this somewhat communist-sounding strategy, while the failure of communism itself is visible around the world, is that the economics of information are fundamentaly different from those of other products. There is very little cost associated with copying a piece of information like a computer program. The electricity involved costs less than a penny, and the use of the equipment not much more. In comparison, you can’t copy a loaf of bread without a pound of flour.

If you can get your head around all this, or at the very least around the one salient fact that Open Source is a Good Thing ™ for us consumers, then like me you begin to understand how so many of Linden Lab’s decisions in the last year have been moving inexorably toward this watershed. Be it Philip’s statement that he wants to do less TOS enforcement and move that ability to users through tools; or the decision to do away with registration requirements and make the Second Life client a free download to everyone; or the overall trend of late to push the world of Second Life back onto us, the citizens — the responsibilities should be ours along with the creativity and the priveleges of Intellectual Property. Our ability to control our own destiny just received a big injection of adrenaline with the move to Open Source.

“Your world, your imagination” was beginning to sound very hollow, but that’s about to change. It’s also going to be our client, our imagination. Imagine a User Interface (UI) that’s easier to maneuver for roleplaying games, combat sims, or just plain old walking around. Imagine being able to change your keyboard layout to whatever you prefer – like you can already do in hundreds of other online games. Imagine having fully configurable and movable IM windows around your viewer, set however you wish. Imagine all the marvelous things we might see in the near future now that the Second Life client has been released to the user community. Wasn’t it about time?

January 12, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 2 Comments

Underage, Online, and You

Take a few moments to read Allana Dion’s article over on her blog – she took a survey on how people view and react to issues of underage Second Life residents and relationships between adults and children.

It’s one of those topics that most people don’t feel too comfortable discussing, beyond “that’s creepy”. But it deserves some intelligent open-minded thought. My own gripe in this area is that our country has a bunch of self-righteous idiots making our laws and trying to over-regulate anything to do with sex, whether it’s rating sexual scenes in movies (while blood, gore and violence are pretty much ok) to getting all bent out of shape over pixel nudity in computer games. I honestly think some of them would outlaw sex altogether if it were possible. God forbid human beings ever have a natural drive to procreate.

My soapbox has always been one based on parental responsibility. My kids know that their personal computers are fair game anytime my husband or I want to check their hard drives or log their chats – or just walk in and look over their shoulder. If they’re doing something they don’t want us to know about, they shouldn’t be doing it. It’s a tough balance because we also try to respect their privacy, but in all things we make it clear that their safety comes before their right to privacy. When they’re adults they can have all the privacy they want.

More importantly, we try to instill two things that I believe are important survival skills for adults: critical thinking and self-respect. Without critical thinking you’ll buy any old fib someone feeds you, and very often end up feeling the fool – or worse, being harmed in some way. Without self-respect you’re more likely to have weak boundaries and find yourself unable to say “no” when you know you should.

It’s worked so far, knock on wood. My daughter is 18, has a 3.8 GPA and is getting acceptance letters from good schools. My son, who is 14, is still a work in progress. I’m afraid the little guy has too much of his Mom’s stubborness right now, and I’m working on ways to channel that into something positive.

As my folks told me, “Now you know what we had to deal with.” Thanks, Mom and Dad!

January 10, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ticking Away

Sometimes you just have to let the guilt build long enough that you can use it as motivation to do something when nothing else works.  That’s how I’ve been with this blog the last three weeks or so.  It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say – that’s never my problem.  It’s that my interest has wandered away from Second Life to family matters over the Holidays, my participation in a certain MMOG beta, and the health of my father. 

And so, I stand before you, guilt-ridden and suitably caffeinated, my inbox full of flotsam that doesn’t fit any kind of cohesive whole.  I’m just going to throw it out here and worry about being prosaic later.

I received an email from a very good friend of mine the other day which alerted me to a nice article over on Wired Magazine.   It’s by Regina Lynn, titled “Where I Come From“. The pertinent quote that made me stop and nod my head:

“I still believe the internet will help us create a more tolerant society, and provide time for people to explore and bring their new understandings into the rest of their lives. It does not surprise me that we leap into virtual worlds to explore what we aren’t encouraged to do elsewhere. Sex is a force that can’t be held back for long.”

 The article’s worth the two minutes of your life it will take to read.

About my Dad:  Those of you close to me know that he’s had a series of recurring nosebleeds that have landed him in the emergency room a few times.  Ultimately it resulted in a T.I.A. – a Transient Ischemic Attack,  also called “precursor strokes” or “mini-strokes”.  It’s not unusual for someone his age (he’s 80), but in my Dad’s case there’s this little thing called “denial” inserting itself.  He’s old-school Pennsylvania Dutch, more stubborn than a mule and has lived his life thinking he had complete control over everything.  Now suddenly, Nature is serving notice that he is, in fact, mortal.  He will die one day.  And there’s a chance that it could be a long, slow process of physical and mental deterioration. 

I think he’s scared to death and he’s covering up his fear with anger and denial.  He ‘fired’ his neurologist when the doctor tried to explain that, no, it wasn’t dehydration that caused the nose bleeds but that they were symptoms of something else going on in his skull.   The fact that the MRI and CAT scan and all the other ABCXYZ alphabet soup scans turned up nothing has made him feel like he’s right.  Four adult children can’t convince him otherwise, nor can his long-suffering wife.   What do you do with a man who has all the denial in the world bottled up inside him?

With a brother out of state and my other siblings all over an hour away from me, email has turned out to be a great boon.  We’ve analyzed, worried, consoled and commiserated with each other without picking up the phone every five mintes.  I told them that this was much like my late grandmother before she died.  She was 99 years old, not due to turn 100 for another few months, but she was slipping very quickly.  She insisted to everyone that, not only was her long-dead husband still there but that she was 100 years old.  I sat by her bed, holding her frail hand and listened to my father try to explain to her that, contrary to her insistence, she was not 100 yet.  She was 99.  And Grandpa died in 1982.  Grandma was as stubborn as Dad.  I could feel the last moments of my time with her slipping away and gave Dad a hard stare.  “Dad, she’s paid her dues.  If she wants to be 100, let her, ok?”

Dad shrugged and begrudgingly gave up the fight.  I think this is a similar situation — sometimes you just have to stop trying to control other people and concentrate on letting them know you love them.  Because those moments tick away far too quickly, and after they’re gone you can never get them back.

About Second Life:  Anyone else notice the correlation between drastic degradation of network performance and the rise of concurrent usage these past few months?  (What we in the bidness call a “Duh” statement)  When I joined SL, we might have 3,000 people online at one time.  That was a busy night.  Usually – not always – it ran fine.  Then, after June of 2006 when Linden Lab opened the door to free accounts, concurrency spiked.  Ten thousand.  Twelve thousand.  Fifteen thousand.  Last night, there were 21,000 residents online at one time.  Teleporting was a crap shoot.  Chat lagged and came out in reverse order.  Building and torturing prims was the usual frustration it’s been lately, which isn’t fun.  Having to delicately align small prims just so, then have them rubberband on you makes you want to throw eggs at Linden Lab office windows.  Finding out that some genius programmer changed the sort order of textures in the EDIT window — again — so that now they’re sorted by alpha instead of by date makes me want to use something heavier than eggs.  I have, literally, over 8,000 textures in my inventory (20 months of building does that).  If I don’t move the uploaded textures to their own project folder before I try to retexture that prim (a futile exercise in itself since the drag-and-drop has a nasty habit of dropping the target window down a page), I have to scroll and scroll and scroll … and it’s no longer work, it’s ridiculous frustration.

Like I said.  Life ticks away too quickly and you never get it back.  I’d rather not spend it sorting my virtual inventory in a virtual world. 

January 8, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment