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 being a CEO

Those “CEO” group tags are widely disliked for a reason. I’d like to expand a bit on that reason, though.

Just like I’m normally the first to say that there is nothing about Second Life that is any less real than the First, so I will be the first one to say that there is a limit to claims of professionalism in it, and there’s no contradiction, both are the sides of the same coin.

Pretty much every Second Life business, with very few exceptions, is essentially a garage operation. One, possibly two or three people, perform all the required tasks. There are very few people out there for whom Second Life business amounts to a day job. Notice that these are usually reluctant to say the words “CEO” or engage in much corporate marketspeak.

The definition of professionalism is not in getting paid for work, nor does work commonly called professional somehow magically become better in quality than something done by an obsessed amateur — obsessed amateurs tend to do better on many an occasion. Professionalism is about taking responsibility for results — delivering the work promptly and on time, consistently, and with a certain expected quality, and obeying a certain code of behavior towards customers, wherein a customer may not be always right, but once they are a customer, they get the exact same treatment as any other customer.

A public image of a corporation offers a certain insulation between the customer and whoever actually does the work — now the worker is absolved of the need to be professional, because if they can’t be, someone else will pick up the slack.

Now, if you say you are a “CEO” in SL, you are essentially asking to be protected by a public image of a noncorporeal corporate entity that still cannot be more professional than it’s individual participants, because at heart it remains a garage operation — there’s still nobody to pick up the slack. There are many reasons to do it, naturally, but the desire to avoid responsibility in case it arises would be the most common, or at least, the most perceived, whether present or not. A garage operation that pretends to be a corporate monster is amusing, if not outright suspicious.

Well, don’t you think we have enough of that in the First Life?

On growth and camping

Recent clarifications from Linden Research involve saying that camping is also a form of cheating on traffic, and is likewise prohibited. While it still remains to be seen that the biggest bot farms are dismantled, and I don’t honestly believe this policy will be enforced seriously1 there’s a debate on whether camping is ‘beneficial for the newbies’ which I’d like to drop my two pence into.

Now, let us consider… Discounting the points about charity spirit,2 and that in a normal camping setup, the fact that you pay campers for the use of their bodies to inflate traffic, why exactly is it economically beneficial to give newbies money?

It is commonly argued that newbies cannot get money in other ways, which is, in many cases, perfectly true. Even though purchasing L$ is easy, it requires a card,3 and often costs more money than many people are willing to spend on what they think is a game in this global economic downturn. So it’s no question that in at least some cases, the necessity to acquire money inworld is unavoidable for a new resident, and the opportunity to do so is generally desirable.

However, where is that necessity to give them money for nothing?4 Naturally, it is in the interest of established residents that new economic agents appear and increase the value supply. However, ‘increase the value supply’ is a key point here. This is a notion both economic and cultural, because a person can contribute value to an economically driven culture of Second Life in many ways — by increasing money supply, by creating things, by performing useful work, or even just by being a good conversationalist.

Camping clearly doesn’t empower new residents for anything of the sort, because it just rotates the money endlessly in the system, and takes away time better spent doing other, more productive things. It’s only practical benefit is artificially inflating traffic, which is now forbidden.

The real question is, what can we replace it with? Just what exactly can we pay money for to people who do not yet have significant skills in Second Life5 and need to acquire them? Modeling? That’s no less boring than camping and it’s a job actually best left to bots.

So, any ideas?


  

  1. They just don’t have the resources, they’d have to outsource that too.
  2. I don’t believe in blanket charity. Blanket charity is for when you can’t be bothered to actually help.
  3. Cards, debit or credit are not at all common in some parts of the world — for example, in Russia, everyone pays cash, and ordering something on the net normally results in a courier which takes cash on delivery after you have been given a chance to test if the merchandise is delivered. Cards aren’t very trusted or desired. And PayPal doesn’t consider Russia a valid country and won’t send money to accounts registered or logging in from Russia. I imagine there are lots of other countries like that.
  4. Please don’t confuse that with freebies. As I have already described multiple times, freebies are potential profit traded for exposure, and as such have a very different rationale behind them.
  5. With the learning curve and almost complete absence of documentation, replaced by dumb tutorials, it’s a wonder anyone knows anything at all. Second Life has no knowledge, it has lore.

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?…

Map of the Known Universe II: Map strikes back

Yes, I’m still working on it, hopefully, getting a proper planetarium projection system released by the weekend. The code for that is already done, as well as the update backend, and the only things left to do is clean it up and make proper controls for rotation, as well as set up the click-to-slurl code that will actually make it sort of useful. 🙂

Usually the first reaction I get from people is 'Wow'.

Usually the first reaction I get from people is 'Wow'.

In the meantime, while looking for sane ways to compute some statistics, I have stumbled on a much simpler layer splitting algorithm. Previously, the map would get split into layers based on geometric rules rather than simple cluster size, which would results in clusters which are obviously a bit too small making the continent list and big ones shaped oddly not making it, and necessitated an extra layer, but I now have gotten rid of this mess — the map exists in four layers: Singletons, Islands (clusters that contain less than 10 sims), Continents (10 sims or more) and Mainland (Linden mainland and adjoining areas). This allowed me to create a map with much less nebulae to it, and it is in general quite a bit more precise:

Neater, prettier, and it looks even better with glow. :)

Neater, prettier, and it looks even better with glow. 🙂

Along the way, some interesting statistics actually resulted. Since the beginning of observation, 423 islands sank, 372 were created. That’s two weeks since I’ve set up the map API interrogation script. The first conclusion from that is that the total number of islands is still shrinking, although, not terribly fast, so no more than 600 islands or so are sinking in a year. What’s more interesting is that while the islands that have vanished mostly seem to have been a part of a big estate, the new sims have appeared all over the map in small chunks:

Red marks the sims no longer present, green marks new sims.

Red marks the sims no longer present, green marks new sims.

Another interesting observation is that there is quite a lot more clusters classed as continents than you would expect — the list of non-mainland continents is 139 entries long, with Azure Islands, the biggest of them, counting 229 sims, which is bigger than the smallest mainland continent (141 sims). In fact, the distribution of land between these four classes is peculiar to say the least:

That's discounting the Land Store Pool and Teen Grid.

That's discounting the Land Store Pool and Teen Grid.

Even if you discount the mainland, which would obviously skew it anyway with it’s weights of 141, 776, 1355 and 2906, it does not seem to follow a power law well, or any other sane distribution — in fact, all the attempts to draw a nice-looking histogram have so far failed. Even in logarithmic scale. There’s way too many singletons, (11593! And there’s 2390 sims arranged in pairs!) and the biggest non-mainland continents are way too big, (229, 103, 67, 64×3, 55…) for which I have no decent explanation so far.

Oh well. 🙂

On virtual sex

It is no mistake to say that sex has been practiced by humanity for as long as this species of primates exists, sex for pleasurable purposes rather than for procreation in particular. If anyone shows up to try and dispute that, I won’t accept any arguments younger than Kama Sutra or goddes Ishtar. Some even say that it is one of the key factors in evolving into a more social and intelligent species.

It is also no mistake to say that communication channel mediated sexual activities are at least as old as those channels. The oldest of them is written word, and that got used for erotic literature, fictional and otherwise, as early as it became feasible to deliver a written message anywhere and the number of available literate communication partners rose high enough. People used to write each other personal erotic letters describing their fantasies for as long as postal network systems existed, and numerous published letter collections from any era can be called in to support that claim.

Telegraph was, throughout it’s history, a bit too brief and expensive for this sort of thing, too little privacy and too much obscenity laws — a new invention of the christian fundamentalists of the most modern and progressive societies of the era, which kind of allowed them much higher productivity, so they had the social clout to do that. But people tried anyway.

Then telephone came, and with it, phone sex appeared — there is little doubt, that while it really got noticed around 80s, with the availability of billing for it emerging with 1-900 numbers, it was actually privately practiced as soon as the privacy of communication was guaranteed.

The earliest instances of cybersex in written word have undoubtedly shown up with email, which was the first major application of computer networks after sharing files, and email interoperability was the killer application that brought Internet in. It was, and still is a major activity on IRC chat networks, as well as in the web-based chat rooms that flourished in the 90s.

It was done in late 80s in the first thing that you can call a persistent virtual world, MUSH/MUD/MUX/MUCK/MOO family servers. I have logs of third parties engaging dated to the earliest days of TinyMUD in it to prove it. Even the first accusations of rape in cybersex date to that era, which became (sort of) possible because of the introduction of the persistent aspect into the virtual world, which was the one true innovation of the age.

Virtual worlds are nothing new, you know. At all. Virtual worlds so big that you always meet strangers in them are.

These worlds were textual in nature throughout their existance, and they still exist today, though the younger generation, incapable of seeing the world in any way other than through a web browser anymore, is underrepresented — relying heavily on the imagination and stimulating it more or less directly, it was the ideal environment, where words weave the entirety of the world and still persist. It is often said that the biggest sexual organ is the brain, and as far as science can tell us, it is quite true. It is also true that in a virtual world, it is the only one you get.

So what does Second Life bring into the mix?

Surprisingly little, actually, mostly because SL is all about reinventing the wheel, abandoning all previous experience — that of the earlier virtual worlds in particular. Conversations with people I’ve had throughout my time in SL and other observations indicate that among the more intelligent part of the population (that is, people who can say more than ‘lol’ being the major criterion) sexual activities are primarily conducted through written conversation, poseballs and animations are far more likely to be shunned and discounted. But for written cybersex, Second Life is notoriously unsuitable — the 1000 character chat line limit is stifling, the single-line text entry window is even more so, (Back in my time in MU* research, the average line in a cybersex session was 500-700 characters long, longest ones went well over 2000, and yes, I have statistics. When you do it right, it takes a LONG time.) and if you’re going to do that, why bother about all these avatars and other nonsense when you can run a persistent textual world on your bleeding mobile phone, and non-persistent textual communication channels with zero round-trip are legion.

Yet others try to go to the other extreme, using little or no written word at all and employing, at best, voice channels for communications and visual means of expression. But for this, Second Life is also notoriously unsuitable, with the complete absence of built-in animation control throughout, (gestures don’t count) extreme crudeness of existing animation control tools — and seeing the code of MLP and ZHAO-II, the pinnacles of the technology, you can clearly see how much effort it took to get even that much — and the fact that the most versatile input devices you have are still your keyboard and mouse doesn’t help much either.

In short, it’s bad for it either way, and you can liken Second Life to an endless striptease session where you can easily look desirable, but when it comes to consummating this desire you still have a thick glass wall between you and no touching is allowed, and you have to make do with suggestive noises, barely audible through the glass. And the glass is thicker than it was just ten years ago.

It remains to be seen whether a true balance between the visual capabilities of Second Life style virtual world that we pay so much for — in terms of hardware requirements and computing power — and written word can be reached, a balance that will produce something that will bring the virtual sex experience to the new heights. Something that lets you create a communication channel that is as versatile visually as written word is, one that can be used to communicate things that are so hard to express in words because no words exist for them — things about love, things about warmth, and things about desire.

Only, Second Life won’t be where it happens.