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September 25, 2005

A new look

Notice the new look for my blog? I just upgraded to Movable Type 3.2, and then refreshed my templates with the new default in this release. I don't know that it's any better looking than the old one, but it's certainly newer...

If you notice anything working worse here than it did before, or anything that seems out of order, please let me know by adding a comment to this entry. So far as I've been able to tell so far, the upgrade went pretty much without a hitch. I had made some changes to some of MT's internal templates, to work around a problem with their auto-reload mechanism on the weblog-rebuilding pages, and the problem is still there, so I had to copy in my changes from MT 3.11. I also had to restore just one of my weblog settings (show the last five entries on the main page, regardless of how old they are), which was a bit surprising, since that should have been covered by the database upgrade. Other than that, it was a really easy upgrade.

If you're using an older version of Movable Type on your blog, I recommend upgrading to 3.2. It's easy, and there are a remarkable number of useful new features. (For me, the most important of those is integrated comment- and TrackBack-spam controls.)

I can barely handle my first life, but...

I've been finding it hard to get any blogging in lately. Certainly one distraction has been our ongoing kitchen and master bathroom remodel, but a lot of my otherwise free time has been taken up with exploring the online world of Second Life.

Many people in technology know of me from my work creating and "managing" a virtual community named LambdaMOO. One of those people is Cory Ondrejka, whom I met recently at Foo Camp. Cory is a swell guy and the Vice President of Product Development at Linden Lab, the company that created and runs Second Life (or SL, as most users abbreviate it). Cory introduced me to SL at Foo Camp and encouraged me to take a closer look afterwards. I'm glad I did.

Like LambdaMOO before it, SL is a multi-user virtual world that allows every person who visits to add to the richness of that world. Also like LambdaMOO, SL has been very successful in inspiring people to spend time there and to pour serious creativity into the place. Both systems allow creation by programmers and non-programmers alike, and have made it possible for even non-technical people to start picking up programming skills as they express themselves in the virtual world.

LambdaMOO is a purely textual virtual world, where (by and large), all experience and interaction in the world is carried by prose descriptions and typed commands. This can, of course, lead to very rich encounters, as a kind of fully interactive literature.

Lambda Moose

My good buddy from SL, Lambda Moose

Second Life is, in a sense, a LambdaMOO for the twenty-first century. While LambdaMOO is centered around the written word, SL is an immersive 3D graphical world. You are represented there by a graphical avatar that you can easily and heavily customize to your tastes. You can walk, run, or even fly around the landscape, visiting the 3D houses, stores, playgrounds, and adventures created by the other users.

Technologically, SL shares a lot with the many massively multiplayer online role-playing games available these days, such as Everquest, The Sims Online, or the extremely popular Worlds of Warcraft. Unlike EQ or WoW, though, Second Life has no built-in goal, no scoring, no winning or losing. Like LambdaMOO, it's less of a game than simply a very interesting place to visit and contribute to. TSO is somewhat in that mold as well, but several things set Second Life apart.

First, from my point of view, there's the programming angle. SL has a fairly straightforward scripting language built into it, and anyone who has any programming experience can easily start adding objects with new behaviors into the world. Those without such background can often read, clone, and customize the scripts written by others, thereby getting a gentle introduction to the skills required. To my knowledge, Second Life is the only commercial 3D virtual world that opens up the programming option to all of its users.

Second, there's the license that you agree to before using the system. One of the most prominent bullet points makes it very clear that everything you create or perform in Second Life will remain your intellectual property, with all of your rights reserved. All of the other online world companies have bent way over the other way to ensure that they are the ones with all of the rights, and they can do whatever they want with anything you do on their servers.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, there's the in-world economy. Like most other online worlds, there's an in-world currency, the Linden Dollar, that can be used to buy virtual artifacts and services, and there's a real-world market for both in-world currency and artifacts. Again, however, in stark contrast to the other game companies, Linden Lab has fully embraced this economy. Users are strongly encouraged to set up business in Second Life and to take their in-world profits to the real-world currency exchange for translations into cold hard cash. As a result, there's a staggeringly rich set of small and large businesses in Second Life, selling everything from avatar clothing to virtual homes, from furnishings to land for building, and even services, from big social events to training in Second Life skills.

As of Foo Camp, Cory was estimating that there were about 40,000 users on Second Life and that, in the previous 12 months, over $2 million of commerce had taken place there. (That's two million US dollars, or something like 500 million Linden dollars at the prevailing exchange rate.) Many, many people there are more than making back their monthly usage fees, and some are beginning to generate substantial incomes.

Speaking of fees, SL also has an unusual rate structure. First, it's absolutely free to download the client software and join the world. Once there, you can interact with everyone else there, build as much as you like, go anywhere you like, and customize your avatar to your heart's content, all without paying a dime. The catch is, you can't own any land, so there's no place to put anything you create except in your avatar's pockets, and when you're not connected, nothing you've created will be available to anyone else. (Technically, you can get around this limitation by finding a group that will let you join them and use their land for your creations, but many [most?] such groups prefer to see land contributions from members before allowing such rights.)

To own land in Second Life, you must move up from the free Basic Membership to a paid Premium Membership. The nominal fee is US$10 per month, but there are substantial discounts if you pay in advance by the quarter or year. That gets you the right to buy land, and Linden Lab has set up a great program called "First Land" that offers you your first 512-square-meter plot at well below market rates. As you buy more land, you also have to pay Linden Lab a monthly land-use fee; see the Second Life site for the full details.

Obviously, I'm enthusiastic about Second Life, and I could go on and on describing it to you, but instead I encourage you to check it out for yourself. After all, the first avatar is free...

September 21, 2005

More Things I Couldn't Have Made Up

As many of you no doubt know, last Monday was the annual "Talk Like a Pirate" day. In honor of the occasion, a new piece of computer peripheral hardware has been created to meet the needs of an appropriate market niche. See this entry from Matthew Baldwin's Defective Yeti site for a fine picture. (Thanks to Hans Andersen for pointing this out.)

Meanwhile, in the Piedmont region of far off Italy, the mother of all stuffed animals has been ... deployed? ... in a position intended to last for 20 years. Regardless of its longevity, this is the kind of art project I can really get behind. (Thanks to Nadja Haldimann for making me aware of this.)