To reiterate

There is one notion that, in particular, most Americans and certain Europeans share. It’s the notion that the opinion and desires of a given individual actually matter to the powers that be, the illusion that democratic procedure actually works and that even a relatively small interest group can affect management decisions of a business.

While it may appear to be true, in reality this requires some very special circumstances and strategies to work, as neither a governing body nor a business management is actually interested in fullfilling the desires of individuals or small groups — while formally, their personal wellbeing is tied to the satisfaction of the population at large, the actual metrics of this satisfaction are not anywhere as clear-cut or obvious as individuals tend to believe. Ever heard of public choice economics? Look it up. The advantage of living in Russia is that while formally, the same democratic mechanisms are in effect, the said illusion is nowhere as popular. Makes living a lot more obvious, as you don’t waste time trying to get what you want in the ways that are known to be broken, you just learn to look for other ways or do it on your own.

Unfortunately, in Second Life, this illusion is quite popular — the mantra “Your world, your imagination” may have something to do with it. I have already mentioned that Second Life’s early basic design is not meant to support life, that from the very start it was meant to be something else entirely, and the current situation is not sustainable. It never was, it never will be. The management is not interested. The current Second Life’s money making model is based on fast user turnover, and is actually a means to remain profitable until corporate acceptance occurs. Now that the turnover is not fast enough, they have no choice but to impose extra fees. Hey, it worked with openspaces, everyone yelled and cringed and cried but still paid.

You brought this on yourself, mind you. You have collected Linden Bears. You have visited Kiss-a-Linden booths on Valentines. You formed fan clubs. You have shouted with glee when Lindens purchased your products. You are stupid enough to actually try to ban copybot-capable viewers, so that there really isn’t a way to pack up your things and leave anymore. If you did any of that, you’re getting exactly what you deserved. Naturally, any given, individual Linden employee may be a nice and reasonable person. They may even have ideals and opinions that you share. But you can only be personally nice to someone you personally interact with, not to the hundreds and thousands affected by your management decision.

“They own it” is the rebuke I usually get for saying that. Someone owns the phone network as well, and it took them many years, but eventually constant whacking from other powerful figures made them evolve a set of impartial rules. But you’re not going to get anything from Linden Research Inc. by self-mutilation — delisting goods, trying to stop all trade for days, public demonstrations and petitions… Their target clients are corporations that are interested in virtual office space. Not us. It’s as simple as that. We are dependent on a monopolist that has locked us in by preventing us from exporting our content outside the platform, and that monopolist is actively hostile. That this is actually a corporate delusion does not mean it’s not happening anyway.

Deal with it.

And by “deal with it” I don’t mean “sit on your hands and do nothing”, but “do something they can’t actually stop and will actually care about”.

Go dust off your first life name. I’m sure you can think of something you, personally, can do.

Second Secrets

A little gimmick for Second Life plurkers, SecondSecrets.

This is a robot that will automatically replurk anything that is plurked privately directly to it with no other recipients – anonymously. No logs are kept, email notifications of private plurks are turned off and I couldn’t care less, so if you delete the private plurk once it has been replurked, there’s no way to figure out who said it.

Knock yourself out, let’s see what happens. 🙂

P.S.: Oh, for the curious, here’s the full source code, really simple.

On traffic bots

Linden Research Inc. has finally decided to do something about traffic bots… and despite that I very much dislike traffic bots, I don’t like the decision at all. I will, as usual, make a prediction, so it’s here so that it will be on file when things go wrong. As much as I hate to say ‘I told you so’, this is one of my special knacks, after all.

Let us formulate the original problem.

  1. Traffic score is a component of the parcel search ranking.
  2. It is in the shop owner’s interest to be higher in search ranking because it should, in theory, drive more people with intent to spend money (and without a clear idea what do they want to spend it on) to their shop.
  3. Artificially inflating traffic makes the search system largely unusable unless you’re looking for a known brand name.
  4. It is therefore desired that artificial inflation of traffic would no longer happen.

The possible solutions to this problem can be divided into two groups of possible decisions: Restricting the use of bots in one fashion or another, or restricting the effects of traffic score in one fashion or another. The two extreme solutions would be to ban all bots at all, and to remove traffic calculation completely.

Banning all bots at all is obviously unacceptable for multiple reasons. Bots are the only answer to the deficiencies of Second Life technology, and have numerous industrial uses — without bots, importing objects from external software would be such pain that it would never be practical, bots are the only way to perform numerous things that a script is not allowed to do but an avatar is, and in general, using a bot just to inflate traffic is just like using a stack of microscopes as a counterweight of a trebuchet. Moreover, it is impossible to readily distinguish a bot from a customized client, and it is, in fact, possible to hack up the standard client in such a way that it is still indistinguishable from the server side, but is programmable to perform actions, which would make it a bot by definition.

Removing traffic completely is not so unacceptable at all — after all, Google ranks pages without any regard for how often they’re read and it somehow works. It uses other values, notably, the number of times the pages are referred to, but this is not, by any means, equivalent to avatar dwell traffic.

Yet they chose a middle ground, and that middle ground does not solve the problem, imposes extra work on Lindens (don’t they have enough to do?) and creates extra problems. How?

  1. The announcement says that Lindens will be monitoring prospective bot farmers themselves. Extra work for Lindens.
  2. Other uses of bots which are explicitly allowed by the new policy, namely, shop mannequins, are permitted and cannot be readily distinguished from traffic botting.
  3. Before traffic bots there was camping, which is not prohibited by this policy. Traffic bots that are being paid ridiculously low rates are not readily distinguished from campers either.
  4. The incentive to inflate traffic is still there, and ways to do it will still be found, since inflating traffic has not been made ‘physically’ impossible.

Campers, in general, are a worse drain on sim resources than bots, due to being better dressed and out in the open, they require numerous scripts to handle them and hundreds of small transactions to pay them. Every underhanded technique to get people to camp that was previously not effective enough compared to bots will be pulled out of the closet, and we can expect much worse atrocities and grievances — for example, I don’t think a camper can (or will) AR when they haven’t been paid for camping, as Linden Research Inc. will not enforce contracts between residents at all. The very first thing shop owners will do, since it doesn’t require too much effort, is dressing up their bots as mannequins and putting them in full view of the shoppers. The shops that do use mannequins legitimately (Edelweiss with it’s L$600 maid dresses does have a good reason to employ mannequins, that’s the best way to show off that the outfit is worth the price, quite high by Japanese standards) will suffer, too.

Meanwhile, there are other intermediate solutions that do not involve such potential for abuse and so much manual work to enforce. There definitely is a way to create a traffic calculation that requires so much research to game it with bots that such gaming is too impractical to attempt. For example…

  1. Traffic awarded to the parcel by the avatar is equal to 0 until the time spent on the parcel reaches a value X.
  2. Traffic awarded to the parcel by the avatar becomes negative if the avatar spent more than Y minutes.
  3. Traffic is calculated not daily but weekly.
  4. If an avatar visited the parcel multiple times during the accounting period, only Z of their visits are counted, and which Z visits are picked and how is kept secret.

This works more or less like this: Assuming that you posess a bot, if you let it hang around the parcel forever, your traffic will go down. If you try to find out the value of Y so that your bots flicker in and out of the parcel, it will take quite a few weeks of experiments even if you have a good guess of what Y is. Just flickering bots in and out and hoping for the best is just as likely to destroy your traffic score as it is likely to increase it. If the values of X, Y and Z are not constant, but depend on something that changes over time, multiple times during the accounting period — for example, the current online count at the moment the avatar entered the parcel — discovering them and the way they change over time will require many months of expensive rigorous experimentation. And if someone does discover it, you can tweak the formula and leave them in the dirt.

Sure, it’s a more complex to code, but code is written once, while manual enforcement takes manpower forever. While there would still be an incentive to have high traffic, gaming it with bots or campers would become impossible and parcel owners would just have to try making their parcel interesting and hope for the best.

Oh, the announcement also mentions landbots. Despite what some people think, the text actually implies that the land bots will not be forbidden, they will merely stop working because the ability to purchase a parcel inworld will be removed and parcels will only be bought through a web interface.

So the land bots will give way to web land bots which can be far less resource-hungry, cheaper to run and readily available even for those who could not get their way through the labyrinthine documentation to libsecondlife/libopenmetaverse.

Way to go, gentlemen. Where’s the sarcasm tag when you need it?…

The art and science of promotional events

Gah, I miss footnotes on WordPress.com. No matter.

Last Saturday, I went on a gridwide hunt. The Bunny Hop gridwide hunt, to be specific. Normally, I consider the prospect of a gridwide daunting, but this one was supposed to contain numerous Japanese designers, which I know usually don’t make junk just to participate… Naturally, I put on my radar. I had plans to finish before supper. I made a special folder for landmarks of shops I like on the way, to visit them later.

It quickly got daunting. The lag was hell throughout the day, my own ISP’s packet loss did nothing to improve it, the first, second and third sims on the way were packed with the most clueless.

But that wasn’t enough, was it. Some of you had to go and make it harder. I have seen numerous visual decoy eggs (not going to slow me down at all), some name search decoy eggs (and this improves my opinion of your store how?) and a whole installation of objects with decoy names and decoy shapes with disparaging comments about my own customers and trying to have a cheap laugh at their expense (I will now make a point of avoiding having any business with Kaethe Dyrssen for the foreseeable future — and I don’t care WHAT she put into her gift, which I deleted immediately without opening, I found this demeaning and stand by my opinion.) … Well, the attempt to put some visual decoy eggs that contain nothing for L$25 late in the chain kind of takes the cake.

It’s not like any of that did slow me down — larger shop territory to search and higher lag was normally a bigger obstacle. But I have still ditifully collected the landmarks to revisit into a folder.

Bleeding 17 hours later, I was done. Annoyed to the point of hissing. And next day, when I actually woke up, I wanted to find something in the collection I would want to wear. Uuuu….

I’m often said to be inhumanly patient. That is not quite true — I’m inhumanly persistent instead. Nobody forced me to start, true, but it I didn’t finish it, I would never be justified in criticizing the whole mess, would I? It took me something like ten more hours, and the results are appaling.

Out of 300 (!) eggs:

  1. Only a handful are so memorable that I can recommend getting them. These are the eggs at Umi Usagi, Zephi’s Shop, Discord, HANAUTA, off-brand furniture. That is, 0.5% — and mind you, these are incidentally the shops I would send people to any time, any day.
  2. Only about 2.5% of all items gained made the cut. Most as separate shirts and pants. I kept their own landmarks with them in their folders like I usually do — when I look for a pair of pants to wear in my endless sea of pants and T-shirts, which, mind you, I don’t wear often at all, I might remember and look them up.
  3. Most of the designers that did not put out a complete piece of trash — even the ones I usually consider good, like Little Heaven — were apparently in the competition on who can make the more hideous shade of purple. Very few people can make hideous shades of purple look good on them, and I’m not among these.

Before any people who actually put some thought and effort in it complain, I have completely ignored almost all poses, all hair, and all skin. I have more than enough unsorted static poses, I only wear one very specific shade of hair which requires painstaking retexturing to get right, and no other skin looks good on my shape.

There were no less than fifteen different variations on the Playboy bunny costume, none appreciably different from any other one and all of them less interesting than the ones I already have, uncountable bunny slippers, tens of very, very similar Easter egg baskets… and mountains upon mountains of outright trash and kitsch. It might be that some of it was even cute in the end, or useful for something. But I’m sorry if I can’t appreciate it after ten hours uninterrupted sifting.

In the end, I couldn’t find anything I was happy with wearing, and wore something completely different.

Then I looked at the folder of landmarks to revisit later.

…and trashed it in disgust.

Now let me tell you something. YES YOU, ladies and gentlemen. The participating designers. I know some of you are reading this! What the frack are you thinking? Are you thinking at all? Well, if you aren’t thinking let me try and give you a lecture.

Repeat after me: Promotional events exist to promote sales and increase exposure.

They don’t exist to promote hate and increase lag, which is what you’re doing!

How exactly promotional events and most importantly, promotional giveaways promote sales? They bring in shoppers, who may (or may not) be interested in the products upon seeing a free sample. In particular, in Second Life, where the origin of every item is readily available in it’s object creator field, the normal way for a savvy shopper to think of where to look for when in the mood for some shopping is to find things in their inventory and go where they came from to see if there’s more in the same vein. Free giveaways increase the chance of this happening in the same way as buying more lottery tickets increases the chance of at least one of them winning. As long as your item results in a landmark to go to your shop, picking it when inventory sorting will result in a visit with intent to spend money, and in Second Life, this is an effect much more prominent than in the First, because it costs you nothing to distribute an unlimited number of promotional items, and visiting your shop after becoming interested in it requires far less effort.

How exactly promotional events increase exposure? There are multiple ways this happens:

  1. Running through your shop, people might remember your brand name and your general style.
  2. Wearing items created by you, people offer others a chance to ask where they got the stuff or, if any attachments are involved, directly look up the creator, i.e. they become walking word of mouth advertisements.
  3. By impressing notable opinion leaders (usually bloggers but not necessarily) with your work, your release may become newsworthy and will be reported and communicated to others in this fashion along with your brand name.

All of these indirectly bring people into your shop with intent to spend money. Intent to spend is cruical here. It is a very common misconception that high traffic equals high sales, or an indication of high quality of products, but it is anything but true — Waterhead and Ahern are high traffic locations, but have very little interesting things to offer and very little people with intent to spend money. So are highly botted locations which muddle the statistics. There is only so much money you will ever acquire from impulse buyers and the clueless, people who spend the most are also normally people who earn more and therefore have more of a clue.

Marketing done right involves lots of statistical mathematics and meticulous data collection, which you probably aren’t doing — many shop owners aren’t even aware if they’re making money or losing it. However, if you plot the sales by name against time spent in shop by every customer, you will notice that the middle of the curve — the highest chance of buying something and bringing you money — is in a certain hump in the middle of the graph, the median of the normal gaussian distribution. People who spent less time than that, didn’t have a chance to take a good look at your products and decide if they want that product for the price it’s offered at. People who spent more time than that, didn’t do it because they enjoy staring at your product images, (very few designers are THAT good!) they did it because something forced them to — couldn’t find what they liked at the price they liked, or had to wait for something unrelated — and they are now annoyed and are less likely to spend money. The median will be different for every shop and product selection, it will shift with seasons, days of the week and world events, but it will always be there.

So, when trying to create a prize for a large gridwide hunt, (in-store treasure hunts are a rather different beast altogether and different considerations come to the forefront, but I’ll write about that some other day) what you should be aiming for is making an promotional item that will be memorable, recommendable, and has as wide of a general appeal as possible given your strength in making products, promotional item that people will talk about, recommend to their friends, and be seen using. You should not be aiming to keep people in your shop for as long as possible, which will do you no good whatsoever, and in fact, the less crowded your shop is and the faster it loads, the higher is the chance that random visitors that a gridwide hunt provides will buy something — or, much more importantly, come back to buy something, and keep coming back to buy something.

Offering something you did not think would sell anyway, therefore, does nothing to improve sales or increase brand awareness — at best, your shop is quietly forgotten until the next time it comes up in the unending stream of information, and at worst, remembered as the site of a painful experience and recommended against. Get it in your head that you aren’t playing a game against your shoppers, aren’t out to make them work for the honour of owning something you made — you want to convince them to give you their money for your honest work. Erecting artificial hurdles for customers for no good reason does not make you look clever, it makes them hate you and avoid giving you money — but being rational actors, they will still try to get your work if it’s any good, and hate you even more for it.

Do you want to be hated? Really, truly? What gives you a bigger ego boost — more visitors or more money earned for your work? Did you think what will happen?

Did you measure what did happen?

P.S.: A dialog.

Peter Stindberg: What do you want in the first place? Do you want to kill gridwide hunts? Do you want to sell the server? Do you want to sell the radar?
Rika Watanabe: I want people to wake the fuck up. Start thinking instead of kneejerk reactions.
Peter Stindberg: Who? Hunters? Organizers?
Rika Watanabe: EVERYONE. All other considerations are there, true. But they’re secondary to that.

Map of the Known Universe

Mapping Second Life is not an easy task. For one, even Linden Research Inc. can’t tell us how many sims they actually have, and you have to pry this information out of their systems with a crowbar. For another, the process of finding grid coordinates of every sim is a dark magic, and I must thank SignpostMarv Martin for pointing me at the process described here and other useful tips, or this project would not be feasible. I must also thank Peter Stindberg and Hyang Zhao for helping me find the furthest sims you can actually reach by teleporting — though if you find that a sim isn’t shown here but reachable by an average traveler, don’t hesitate to tell me.

I collected this data for a pathfinding system for Hands of Omega TARDISes, which is a story best left for another day, but once I plotted it in 1 pixel per sim scale, I noticed how much the map looks like a starry sky.

Shows promise, doesn't it?

Shows promise, doesn't it?

Some people would be content with pasting it on a texture as is, but I thought it doesn’t look pretty enough. So I went on to write pages upon pages of code to split it into clusters based on rules — singleton sims in one layer, small clusters in another layer, and all the way to mainland continents, for a grand total of five layers.

Every type of cluster is painted a different color

Every type of cluster is painted a different color

Each layer then suffers a different image manipulation approach to make it look more star-like. The end result, with a grid overlayed over the whole thing and some locations marked, looks like this:

The end result. Still can be prettier. Looks better inworld with glow and stuff.

The end result. Still can be prettier. Looks better inworld with glow and stuff.

I’m planning to build a planetarium with weekly automatic updates – the whole point of writing all this messy rendering code was to fully automate the process so that it could go completely unattended. It might also show up for sale — I will need to offset the texture upload costs. 🙂

Sort of a joke

One of my friends told this joke about me once:

Rika went into cryonic storage, and a label was left on her coffin, saying, “Revive when all hell breaks loose.”

Time came and went, and all hell broke loose, so people revived her. She adjusted her tie, had some coffee, read the news for half an hour, and then exclaimed, I fucking told you so!

Well, that’s today.

And it’s more or less too late.

Genocide

Genocide. This is what the Russian nationalists call the policies of Russian Federation. They maintain that these policies cause the eventual extinction of the native Russian population, and are entirely deliberate.

They’re wrong, naturally. Not in saying the policies are actually harmful to Russians — that much is perfectly true. But in saying the policies are deliberate. They are nothing but the result of ignorance and greed on large scale, it’s not necessary to create a universal conspiracy for unrelated actors to pull in one direction — the direction looking tempting is enough.

Then again, it doesn’t really have to be deliberate to be genocide, does it? Deliberate intent is only provable in court. Being systematic is usually enough.

Genocide. This is what Linden Research Inc. is doing to the core culture of Second Life, the culture of hardcore users, consisting of content creators and their educated consumers. The culture that made Second Life great and makes it profitable when it exists on a scale never before seen in the history of virtual worlds.

Deliberate or not, genocide it is, even if no people actually die, because a culture is extinguished.

But here are some numbers. First, let’s establish the size of active population.

While Second Life has over 16 million accounts registered, the great majority of them are dropped. The officially cited retention rate is 10%. It is well known that deleted accounts are still counted towards this number, they only stop showing up in search. It is therefore safe to assume that no more than 10% of these accounts are actually used, which gives us a figure of no more than 1.6 million accounts that still log in.

The number of accounts that logged in in the past 60 days, which are termed ‘active accounts’, is given in the same sources as 1444530, which corresponds well with the above estimate. These, however, are not individuals, but accounts. It is impossible to determine how many alts an average resident has, but it is possible to estimate the number of active bots on the grid.

Linden Research gives an official estimate of the number of bots at 10% of all user hours. This is demonstrably bogus, however. The more solid estimates result in at least 40% of all logins being bots — see also other posts in the same source.

The number was more or less confirmed by observation of the recent database meltdown. At the lowest point of the meltdown, the number of active logins went below 30000. While a lot of them were actual people, as evidenced by conversations in group chat — I was lucky to be there myself — it makes sense that at least 25000 of them were bots. The bots I knew to have been in world at the moment the meltdown started, remained connected, for the simple reason that bots normally do not move much, do not request profile information, do not request or render textures, and in general do very little to strain the central database — little enough that no failure of a central database request would cause them to be logged off.

That leaves us with the figure of about 42000 actual people being online at peak logins time.

Not too much already, is it?

Well-founded estimates put the size of the core of Second Life culture at about 100000 people. This is small, but perfectly sufficient for a culture to prosper, real cultures prospered with much less luminaries, and there was a time when the entire population of Europe was in the millions. Exceeding the Dunbar’s Number is often enough for a lasting culture to form. This set is fairly fragmented — split into numerous languages and national backgrounds. But they share core values despite all that — creativity and freedom of expression, which allow us to consider them a cultural group for the purposes of further discussion.

Assuming the people are keeping sane sleeping schedules of 8 hours in SL, 8 hours at work, and 8 hours of sleep, which isn’t exactly true but for the purposes of this discussion is sufficient, of these 100000, no more than a third are online at any given time, which corresponds well with the above number of 42000 actual people being online at peak time – 33000 hardcore residents, 9000 transients.

All this results in the 100000 people core population figure being well supported by evidence.

Now, more numbers, directly relating to the recent innovations by Linden Research Inc.

In the recent openspace scandal, almost 4000 islands out of a known figure of over 26000 islands were decomissioned, which accounts for a loss of about 15% total land mass. Assuming that the core population was distributed evently across the entire land mass – which is known not to be true, as mainland is not very popular among the core residents — about 15% of them were screwed directly by the price hike.

That’s 15000 people. 15% of the core population screwed, at least.

The next worrisome development, the purchase of OnRez and XStreetSL by Linden Research Inc., and the announced closure of OnRez, result in even more interesting numbers. As Peter Stindberg wrote recently, using the data I collected, XStreetSL is about two times larger than OnRez, 16683 merchants, with 8718 merchants on OnRez. What I did not compute by then, though, is that 3635 of the merchants registered on OnRez are unique to OnRez, and do not use XStreetSL.

That’s 3635 people who will now have to transfer shop. On average, that was 39 titles per merchant, which results in 140000 titles that will need to be transferred, and a loss of 23000 man/hours of work. 3.5% of the core population screwed.

The next development is so far only a rumour. And yet, it’s a rumour so worrisome that I will count it too.

In a recent interview in Metanomics, Philip Linden let slip of the upcoming merge between the Teen Grid and the Main Grid of Second Life. Later, Blue Linden has given evidence to believe that Philip Linden does not say that out of the blue, pardon the pun. As the Teen Grid in truth is nothing but a hidden estate within the Main Grid, such a merge is technologically trivial to accomplish.

The reasons for such a merge are fairly obvious. As you can plainly see — and mind you, it did not show on the slurl.com previously — it is falling below the critical mass of sustainability, and the only options are to shut it down or merge it. Around Russia that would be nothing special whatsoever, but the current US law gives a teenager the equivalent of a rocket launcher to use against anyone who might displease them, by accusing them of sexual advances.

The threat of such accusation, which is likely to screw the person’s life all the way to hell and back even if demonstrably false, and against which they have no recourse, is widely discussed in the related thread on the official forum with residents overwhelmingly voicing their disagreement with the measure for various reasons. But still that’s not numbers.

Philip Linden: “We need to stop creating isolated areas that are age specific and, instead, look at how we can make the overall experience appropriately safe and controlled for everybody.”

Note the conspicuous absence of any word implying ‘freedom of expression’ in that sentence. It is obviously possible to find a solution in which the freedom of expression is not inhibited. The conspicuous absence of any reference to it, though, suggests — just like the sentence itself only suggests — that it was not taken into consideration at all, and offers a scenario where all mature content is eradicated from the grid to make an environment that is “safe and controlled”.

That’s still not numbers though. It is fairly tricky to determine just how much of the content inside Second Life is certifiably ‘mature’. The best gauge would be XStreetSL product listings, but they don’t offer any statistics on the matter and I’m not up to the required amount of web scraping just yet. But I expect that if ‘mature’ is not defined sufficiently narrowly, well over 40% of all content in Second Life will need to be eradicated or made very hard to access. Now that’s numbers.

That’s screwing 40% of the core population at least. They’re the ones who make it, after all. They’re the ones who use it.

They’re us.

The word ‘to decimate’ means, actually, ‘to kill off one tenth of a set’. Recent innovations by Linden Research have definitely achieved this in regards to the core population, or will soon do so. I dare say I have shown above that this may qualify as genocide. In EVE Online, whenever the game creators radically change the game balance, the population, accustomed to such things, tends to say, “Adapt, or die.”

Usually, ‘adapt’ there means that someone else will be doing the dying part.

P.S.: Sorry, was a bit off on the number of merchants exclusive to OnRez, it is now corrected. Everything else checks out though.