Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Deadwood Story -- Plain Jane, part 4

Suddenly, Calamity Jane looked at Dio with apparent suspicion. “Wait a goddamn minute. Yer puttin’ up a gol’ double eagle in this wager...what if I lose?”

The older woman smiled benevolently. “Oh I reckon I shall give ye a choice, Martha. If’n ye should not be able to go all afternoon without tellin’ any fabrications to Mr. Drinkwater, I shall require of ye either one o’ yer pistols, OR that ye take the temp’rance pledge and abide by it fer at least a month. Yer choice.”

Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary looked somewhat alarmed for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. Done. Though I ain’t fer certain as to how yer gonna know if'n what I sez is the God’s Honest ‘r not.”

“Well, hon,” I reckon we’ll sort that out as we go,” replied Dio. “Should I doubt the veracity o' some tale or statement, I shall challenge ye on it...and we shall settle it as best we can.”

The young woman laughed and slapped her knee. “Allright, I reckon the two o’ us kin figger it all out...Mr. writer gent, ya may proceed.”

JJ Drinkwater smiled and took out a notebook and set of already sharpened pencils from the pouch that carried his writing materials. “Splendid, Miss..ah..um...would you prefer that I call you Miss Canary, or Jane or...”

“Martha,” brusquely answered the young woman, without waiting for him to finish. “Jane ain’t m’ real name, an’ Miss Canary sounds...oh hell’s gatepost, it sounds like yer talkin’ to someone else, not t’ me. Most o’ m’ friends ‘n associates do call me Jane, an’ have fer years...but i would not give ol’ Dio there the satisfaction o’ me conveyin’ somethin’ that ain’t the absolute truth so early on in our conversation. I have no wish to allow the grizzled ol’ sack o’ buzzard guts any excuse to retain that 20 dollar gol’ piece. So Martha it shall be fer the duration o this conversation.”

Dio chuckled at this as JJ nodded and wrote something at the top of a fresh page in his notebook. Then he looked up, and asked in a quietly serious voice, “We should begin with your origins--what can you tell me about your family and your birth...starting with the when and where of it.”

“Well, sir,” began Martha, “I was born in the year o’ 1856, near Princeton, Missouri. M’ pa, Bob Canary was a farmer from Ohio, an’ m’ ma, Charlotte, she was mostly yer ordinary sort o’ farm wife...she bore a number o’ young’uns while we was in Missouri, m’self, an’ a brother, an’ a couple o’ sisters. I was the oldest. We left there when I was oh, mebbe ‘bout 8 year old.”

“Why did you depart from Missouri and where did you go?”

The young woman sighed. “Oh, best as I understand it, m’ pa had legal troubles. Owed folks money, that sort o’ thing. So we took off fer the gold fields of Montana, though I recall we tarried in Iowa fer a spell with fam’ly. Pa figgered he could make a decent livin’ diggin’ the yella’ metal in Montana. But he couldn’t nor didn’t.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“I ain’t fer certain, but after a while he was tryin’ to live off gamblin’...an’ m’ ma was takin’ in warsh fer other folks...an’...well, I was tasked with lookin’ after the younger chillun’...was on m’ own most o’ the time with that...even had to do a bit o’ beggin’...fortunately miners kin be generous fellers when they got some color in they pokes...oh yeah, I oughtta mention that Ma had her another babe durin’ this time, so I was carin’ fer a infant sister t’ boot, whilst Ma was tryin’ to make some money.”

JJ looked up from his notebook. “That...must have been...very difficult.” He was impressed that Martha was describing her family’s misfortune in such matter-of-fact, undramatic terms. Dio was giving off a very different affect as well. Her cocky, smug expression had melted into something softer, a sort of half-smile...and she was no longer flipping and spinning the gold piece. She left it laying on the table as she rose and went over to pour two mugs of coffee from the pot on the small iron box stove. As she returned to the table, she sat one mug in front of the writer, and one in front of Martha. Then she gently patted the younger woman on the shoulder as she sat back down.

Martha looked at Dio with an odd little smile and then turned back to JJ. “Ya do what ya gotta do. Lots o’ folks face hard times now ‘n then...people lose their farms or have t’ sell ‘em fer less than they paid...they work brutal hard t’ get by, an’ then some goddamn thing 'r other happens...a lawsuit, the cholera...or the war...an’ ever’thin’ goes t’ shit, spittle ‘n ruin. So ya try to find a way t’ get back on yer feet. But with us’n, it din’t get no better, fer Ma died a couple years after we got t’ Montana, an’ then Pa passed a few years after that in Utah. Reckon I was ‘bout 12 at that point.”

“What did you do after that?”

Martha shrugged. “I was tryin’ to keep us all together as best I could...I done things like goin’ in saloons an’ singin’ songs fer the boozehounds, tryin’ to squeeze a coin ‘r two out of 'em here ‘n there....o’ course, thing is, even then, I couldn't sing worth a good goddamn.”

The young woman laughed and took a long swallow of black coffee and then frowned.

“Some folks offered to take us in...an’ I tried to get along in those circumstances, but I’d gotten used to bein’ m’ own boss by that time. Eventually, I found sitiations where m’ sisters ‘n m’ brother had fam’lies to stay with...folks who would do well enough by ‘em. But by 13 or 14 years o’ age, I was purty much a free agent, settin’ m’ own course.”
to be continued...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Goodbye Deadwood 1.0 -- a Second Life experiment enters a new stage


Everything has a life span. The virtual town that I called home for over two years is coming to the end of its existence. Our sim owners Caed/Percy, Deac and Estwee decided that this weekend would be the weekend that we will "burn down the town." Then we will temporarily close the sim while they install the new build that will take us back to the spring of 1876.

Here's how Caed explained it on our Deadwood community forum:

"The Deadwood Fire begins on Saturday the 27th of 1879 sometime in the mid afternoon so as to allow as many as possible to show up. The day before (Friday) can be the run-up to the events on Saturday. After all the destruction, Sunday the 28th will be the closing party in the late afternoon/evening.


Fri the 27th, events leading up to the fire.
Sat the 28th, Deadwood Fire.
Sun the 29th, Closing OOC Party & final day to pick up prims.
Mon 30th thru Friday 2nd, Deadwood Rebuild
Friday 2nd 1876, Deadwood Grand Re-Opening at 5pm SLT

Rentals for merchants and players will operate much the same way as before with only a few 'minor' changes, and as always, rentals will be first come first to be served.

There will be plenty of space, tons of new buildings, more special 'named' buildings (Cricket, Senate, Progressive Hall, Shingle's, the Custer House Hotel, Bella Union, Iowa Restaurant, California Chop House Restaurant, Grand Central Hotel) and more, many un-named saloons, shops and residences will also be available to choose from."

The idea, if you missed the previous discussions of this, is to turn back the clock and recreate what Deadwood looked like when it was newly established, an illegal gold mining camp located on land that had been promised in perpetuity to the Sioux under the Ft. Laramie treaty of 1868.
You may recall that our first version of Deadwood was a remarkable experiment in historical roleplay as time moved forward in the sim: we started as mid-1876, and experienced the passing of the days, the turning of the seasons--and the progression of events as our own roleplay storylines mingled with historic events such as the murder of Wild Bill Hickok. We also witnessed the town developed, becoming more "civilized" and developing a more sophisticated social and architectural fabric.

It is now early 1879 in the Deadwood sim, and we are about to include one last historic event--a recreation of the great fire of 1879 that destroyed much of the early town. When the sim reopens, many of us will have new characters (I'm going to be splitting my time between Malachi--an older Black miner--and a Sergeant Major OHanlon, up at the fort). The environment will be very very different as well. We have done a great deal of research on what early Deadwood looked like, and Caed has been working for months on new structures and new terraforming that he will install during the brief hiatus. I think people are going to be surprised and impressed. The Deadwood build--even in it's first iteration--never looked like the other western builds in SL. This new build will look even less so: it will be a mixture of tents and cabins, some with canvas roofs, and a few others looking a bit fancier with plank false fronts dressing up their facades. It certainly is not going to be just another standard mish-mash of "old West" buildings.

Other folks have been working on new accessories and equipment as well--from mining gear, to new weapons, to more accurate clothing and furnishings. Everyone has learned a lot in the last two or so years and we're putting that knowledge to work.

Sadly, I am going to miss the end of the old build--real life work has me on the road for the rest of this week and into early next week. So this evening I went in and pulled up all my stuff (I didn't want to have it all returned as one big mass into Lost and Found over the weekend). So I started at the laundry--the first place I had in Deadwood.

From there, I went to the Blacksmith shop that I had set up for someone who suddenly decided to leave the sim, but I liked how it looked, so I kept it. Clay and I had a great time trying to make a forge for this shop because we wanted something that looked more realistic than what you usually see in SL blacksmith shops. I have always enjoyed collaborating with Clay. We give each other ideas, we share information and our different skills, and it's...well, it's just been a whole lot of fun.

Next, I went and cleaned out the wholesale liquor and tobacco shop I had set up with Blackjack--part of our "silent partner" storyline. Blackjack/JF has been a co-conspirator in some of the best rp I ever was a part of. I have had fun with a lot of folks--so many that I can't name them all. But there were always a few very special friends like Blackjack who--along with Elizabeth and Carrie Anne/Rachel, Roku and Sal, Clay and all his goddamn alts, Mahaila and Meri, and Lefty/Hawk and Brook--often had me moved to tears or laughing so hard I thought I was gonna puke....

Finally, I headed over to the hotel and cleaned that out. Sharing that with Cookie/Coodnank was a truly fascinating experience. I really loved working on fixing that place up and furnishing it as the town evolved, and places like the Grand Central became less primitive.

Then I went up into the hills and collected my shooting targets. I was thinking about the fun we had with the Deadwood shooting society--and the many happy hours spent talking about guns with Lock and Ernst and some of the other boys.

There's a few odds and ends left, but I guess it's ok if Caed just returns them during or after the fire. Street signs; a couple outhouses...oh hell's britches, there's probably something else I have forgotten. But I know one thing that won't be forgotten...all the friends and all the good times...learning and building, laughing and crying, shooting the same stupid griefers on different alts over and over...and creating some great characters and some wonderful stories.

I walked over the bridge one last time...

I think what everyone is doing here is very brave. In SL it's tempting to leave stuff up even after the life has gone out of it. To be honest, it really was time to do something different with the Deadwood concept. Even so, it's often hard to let go...to take all the hard work that has been done and dump it for something new. But the platform is a dynamic and continually evolving place, and to truly embrace it, you need to embrace the fluidity of it.

So I will let you know how the next stage of this experiment turns out.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Deadwood story -- Plain Jane, part 3

JJ Drinkwater and the Widow Kuhr had stepped back out from the cool darkness of the Bonanza dance hall, blinking in the bright afternoon sun. Noticing a dark dampness that had been left behind after the day's shooting victim had been carted off, Dio scuffed some dust over the spot with her boot.

Her new friend, the writer, watched her in a glum silence. When she had finished more or less camouflaging the blood that had spilled in the street, she looked up and smiled a little sadly.

Yer feelin' a tad let down, ain't ye pard?

JJ Drinkwater tipped his bowler back on his head and stared thoughtfully back into the depths of the dance hall.

"No...not really," he said after a bit. "I've come to expect most stories that I chase to prove to be something less than I was led to expect. I suppose...well, I suppose I'm just a little bit tired."

Dio nodded. "Been a long day I 'spect. Ye got ye a place to rest yer carcass?"

JJ shook his head. "No, Miss Dio, I do not. I should attend to that. I stopped in your establishment almost immediately after having got down from the coach--I had no opportunity to investigate the possibilities."

Well, I tell ye what, pard, I shall take ye tothe Grand Central an' interduce ye to Miz Cookie an Aunt Coodnank who runs the place. I shall see to it they pervide ye with suitable 'commodations." Dio gave a bright little grin. "I think yer gonna like them ladies. Miz Cookie, well, she come from a high-falootin' N'Orlins famly which musta fallen 'pon hard times...an' she is just as charmin as the devil's butler...as well as bein' purt near a madwoman, unless I'm greatly mistaken."

This comment had its intended effect. JJ suddenly snapped out of his vague reverie and suddenly looked a bit intrigued. "Indeed? Mad, yet she runs a hostelry?"

"Yep," continued Dio. "Oh, an' her friend an' associate, Aunt Coodnank--she's this grand mountain of a colored creole woman, a gal o' some respectable age an' substantial wisdom...who is in point o' fact known to converse 'n make idle chit-chat with deceased folks...tho' in all honsety I do at times get to wonderin' what it is that they who've crossed o'er would have to talk about. Seems to me bein' daid probbly don' offer all that much in the way o' fodder fer lively conversation"

JJ looked at the compact figure of the frontierswoman, hands on her hips, her face wreathed in a smile of genuine enthusiasm, and he could not but help smile as well.

"Miss Dio, it would be an honor and a pleasure to meet your friends. I am immensely indebted to you for whatever you are able and willing to do in the way of suitable introductions."

"My pleasure pard, " Dio replied."I think yer gonna find Cookie 'n Coodnank an' their tales will be o' great interest to a scribbler like yerself--an' I can assure ye that Cookie fer one shall be most tickled pink with yer manner o' speech an' the way ye carry yerself. She's oft bemoanin' the lack o' real gentlemanly gents in these parts. An' I am more than happy to make ye known to various other folks who I trust yer gonna find intriguin'...tho'...I tell ye what...would be shame fer ye to come here an' not talk to the personage ye was orignally seekin'....I'm gonna talk with Sam at the Bonanza an request that he have Martha Canary call upon ye when she has once again got up a proper head o' steam suitable fer navigation."

Before JJ could say anything or protest that such an arrangement was unnecessary, Dio had strode purposefully into the dance hall. A moment later, she returned, and with a broad grin and a wink, announced, "Miss Clamity Jane shall meet us at the Number 10 tomorrow, bright and early, somewhere towards the crack o' noon.

Well, Miss Dio was as good as her word on all counts. She did get JJ introduced to some extremely colorful characters that evening, including the aforementioned Miz Cookie and Aunt Coodnank, and the good Mr. Drinkwater, depsite his exhuastion, did in fact find them all to be uniquely delightful.

Likewise, Dio had done a proper job in making arrangements for JJ to meet the actual object of his visit. Shortly before noon the next day, as he sat in the Saloon Number 10, sharing a newspaper with Miss Dio and her friend, Roku, the gunslinging courtesan, JJ was was startled by a harsh, strident voice baying from just outside the saloon, "Cockadoodlefuckin'doo DIO! HERE I AM! Bright an' goddam early as promised, ya dried-up ol' harpy!"

The widow Kuhr looked up from her piece of the paper. "MARTHA! ye scrofulous sack o' miscellaneous ill-used woman parts! Get yer miserable rye-soaked ass in here!"

JJ was surprised, not so much at the impolite vocabulary that decorated the greetin's that were exchanged, as much as he was by the expression on Dio's face.

She looked sincerely pleased to see Miss Canary, who in turn, was grinnin' like a dead possum at Dio. Roku on the other hand, did not even bother to look out from behind her paper, and from JJ's vantage point next to her (he could glimpse her face around the side of the newsprint page she held up), he could see that Roku's expression was not at all friendly.

He didn't have long to reflect on that however, as Dio was already introducing him to the woman who was already the centerpiece of numerous stories being told in places like Laramie and Cheyenne and beyond. He stood and extended his hand without hesitation--Martha Canary grasped it firmly and shook it in a very man-like way.

While Mrs. Kuhr made the introductions, JJ took mental notes about this woman who stood before him. She was of middling height and slight build, with dark, shortish hair and a plain but not unpleasant face. She was considerably tidied up since he had seen her yesterday--he could smell the fragrance of lavender soap from her--and her hair had been washed and neatly combed. Miss Canary wore a different dress...a better one than yesterday. It was a tiny bit frayed at the cuffs and collar, but clean and carefully pressed. There was something...something that JJ found curiously likable about the young woman.

Dio had previously suggested to JJ that he begin proceedings by buying a round of lager for all present (coffee in Dio's case), which he did, and this seemed to get things off to a good start. Martha Canary sipped her beer and sighed happily, and then looked at JJ.

"To yer very good health, pard...an welcome to the Black Hills."

JJ wished her good health as well and raised his glass to their hostess who clinked her coffee mug against all their glasses...including Roku's which had magically appeared for a wordless toast from behind the paper she was still reading.

"So Sam tells me that yer a writer, and that is why ol' Dio wished fer me to come meet ya?" asked Martha.

"Yes," answered JJ. "There are stories related about you down in Cheyenne and thereabouts...you know, there are even some things that have been written about you..."

The writer pulled out a modest booklet from his satchel--Dio could see the words "The Black Hills and American Wonderland by Horatio N. Maguire" on the cover.

Martha Canary took the pamphlet from JJ's hands and regarded at it for a moment with an oddly wistful look. Then she passed it back to him saying, "Pard, I would be greatly obliged if'n ya would read fer me the passage what mentions me...I ain't never larned no readin."

Mr. Drinkwater opened the small volume to a page that had a corner turned down and began to read a section that described how the author, on arriving in the Black Hills, inquired of an "old pioneer" how far it was to Deadwood. The man pointed to a figure on a horse and said, "About a mile and a half; that girl on a horse is going there now." The author said that rider appeared to be a boy rather than a girl, and the old pioneer assured him that it was most certainly a female, a girl known as "Calamity Jane."

The story made Martha Canary laugh.

"Yessir," she snorted, "I do get called that. But that story...tis amusin'...however, let me tell ye some REAL stories about ol' Calamity Jane..."

There was a sudden rustle as Roku put down her paper. She rose without a word and put her empty beer mug on the bar. Finally she spoke, "Thank ya fer the lager, scribbler. If ya care to invest in somethin' truly memorable, come down an' visit me at the Bella. See ya later, Dio." Without looking at Martha, she strode out. Nor did Martha acknowledge Roku's comments or departure. She simply sat with her face fixed on JJ Drinkwater, a stiff sort of smile etched into her features.

Suddenly, JJ was aware of a faint ringing sound. Dio was spinning a bright yellow coin on the table.

"Martha," she said in a quiet voice, not looking up from the spinning coin, "Yer a bettin' woman. I got a 20 dollar gold piece that says ye can't spend the entire afternoon talkin' with JJ here, tellin' him stories about yerself, all of which are nothin' but the absolute, rock solid, unvarnished truth."

Martha Canary looked slightly perplexed and stunned...then a grin slowly spread across her face.

"An afternoon o' stories--an' nothin' but the God's own truth?"

Dio smiled a slight, sardonic smile, and nodded.

"All right, ya goddamn heartless crone, yer on," spat Calamity Jane.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Merging the Second Life Adult and Teen Grids -- "Who's on first?"

So what is going on with the idea of merging Second Life’s Teen Grid and Adult grid into one big happy world?

This is something that has been kicking around as a rumor since early last year. There are those who argue that the ghettoization of adult content into Zindra was in preparations for this (personally I think it was perhaps more directed at defeating the widespread perception that “SL is all about pixel poking” in order to help attract more business and education customers). Obviously, if they decide to do so, it’s going to be a real challenge to make that kind of merger work without killing what makes SL a remarkable and engaging place for people over the age of 18 (and I’m not talking about sex).

I began thinking about the possibility a lot more after “There” closed, because such a large part of the customer base in that particular virtual world seemed to be made up of the pre-18 demographic. Some of us suspect that the demise of that platform was at least partially brought about by “There’s" reliance on a market segment that injected only a relatively modest income stream into the economy of that world.

So the other day, when I had the chance to run some questions past T Linden (Tom Hale, LL’s Chief Product Officer), one of the questions I asked him was the following:

Diogenes Kuhr: “On the issue of what we can learn from "There" a big question is what is going to happen regarding younger players--there is some consensus that the nature of the demographics in "There" was part of what worked against them--their chief administrator said as much in his farewell post. You will find some persistent concern that SL is working towards an eventual incorporation of the teen grid into the main grid, a supposition that has been reinforced by the attempted isolation of adult content in Zindra and the combination of main and teen forums. Many people are worried that if this does in fact happen, it is going to have a negative impact on the viability of the platform and on the SL experience for both younger and older residents for a lot of reasons that we don't need to go into at the moment. But bottom line is, will SL continue to provide a separate experience for younger and older residents, even as the Lab works toward a broader adoption of the platform?”

And he replied:

T Linden: “While the success of kids and teen virtual worlds does highlight that there is a potential opportunity in that space, we do not have a plan to merge the grids. If we did have this plan, there are lots of regulatory and legal requirements, technical improvements (eg in terms of maturity ratings for content, chat moderation etc) that are much lower priority than our current list of "things to do". Of course, never say never... but it's not currently contemplated (my bold)."

Ok...cool. Seems pretty straightforward. Sounds good and reasonable in fact.

But then, I start seeing tweets about what M Linden (the BIG Boss) was saying in his speech at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference this weekend. And apparently he was saying that this kind of merger IS being contemplated.

I have not been able to find a transcript of what M actually said, so I could only go on what people were telling me they heard...or were told that someone else had heard. The best source I could find to this point is a brief mention in Grace McDunnough’s blog:

“When asked about merging the teen grid at the VWBPE conference M Linden confirmed that a combined adult/teen was a distant future dream, but would emerge slowly through ‘thoughtful evolution’."

To say the least, this left me utterly confuzzled. So what’s going on?

Some commentators on Twitter argued that M was perhaps trying to say things that he thought the educators “wanted to hear.’ My response to that was..”why would educators want to hear that the teen and adult grids were going to merge?” The kind and thoughtful Riven Homewood explained to to me thusly:

* Community colleges & tech schools typically have students ranging from 16 to late 20s, - 18 and over is hard for them.

* All colleges & universities find it hard to use SL for recruiting because of over 18 rule.

* I have no direct experience with the teen grid, but people I know have explored using it & decided it wasn't worth the hassle

*What I hear is that educators would like to be able to take students to the great builds on the main grid & hold mixed-age classes

*I suspect many of the people at M's talk were too new to really understand the issues. They all just wanted M bears :)

Ok....so that kind of made sense to me, although I'm not sure I’m still not really sure that the merger would be worth the effort. But then Riven came back at me with one more thought, after we talked about the new Media Consortium/LL joint project to develop “Hakone,” a “walled garden” environment that seems to be a variation of the "SL Enterprise" separate mini-grids, but designed specifically for education customers.

Riven further observed:

“...a mixed-age separate education grid might solve a lot of problems, but not the one of showing great main grid builds to students.”

And while I can see that yes, there are some cool things that could be shown to younger students on the main grid, wouldn’t a more important goal be to provide them with an active learning experience--rather than a passive one--on a safe, relatively grief and flying penis-proof independent grid, where they can really get engaged in world building on their own? Remember--”don’t just build a classroom, build an experience!”

And ultimately, even if some educators might be interested in getting their younger students mixed up in the main grid, has anyone actually talked to the students about it? I keep seeing serious and disturbing indications that younger people are not real comfortable about entering into life on the adult grid. For example, I have on several occasions encountered groups of obviously younger players in-world (we shall take a leap of faith that they were in fact over 18), who were all using voice, and when they found that I and the people I was talking with were NOT using voice, they became hostile and suspicious. They wanted to know why we weren’t on voice--what kind of twisted and evil truths were we trying to hid?

Now mind you, I hate using voice because: A.) it usually doesn’t function well for me; B.) I prefer the immersion of typed chat; and C.) I like having a copyable record of what gets said. Plus, voice just doesn't frakkin’ work for roleplaying, because so much of what you do in SL rp is to type out your “emotes”--descriptions of facial expressions and certain actions that can’t be represented with the avatar itself. So I got my reasons. But I don’t need some uppity kid giving me a hard time because I don’t use voice...

And this is even more interesting and disturbing because I am told that in “There,” voice was used a great deal, and that the numerous (and mostly younger) players “shunned” anyone who relied on typed chat.

That indicates to me that if even younger players than we have now were coming on to the SL main grid, they would perceive it to be an uncomfortable and semi-hostile environment. The ironic thing in all this is that I have read comments by many people who left “There” because they considered it a “perv-fest”--so maybe using voice really doesn’t give the younger players the assurances of safe social interaction that they’re looking for. Regardless of that, it would seem that SL just isn't the kind of environment that many of them will percieve to be agreeable to them.

And that lack of perceived comfort is a two-way street. Now I know this is going to make me sound like some old geezer yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off her goddam lawn--but you know, I’m not sure that a lot of the current customer base--the majority of whom, of course, are not predators and creepy axe murderers--would be all that comfortable with an increased presence of younger players coming on as individuals (not in classes). I can’t tell you how often in the last five years or so, the bad behavior of some jerk de jour was explained away as “oh well...he’s young,” (meaning late teens or early 20s).

To be a successful and happy resident of SL--ie, one who does not piss off every sentient entity you encounter--takes not only a certain degree of technical proficiency, it also requires a certain level of socialization. And of course, before you bright young geniuses start lambasting the cranky oldtimer for painting you all with the same broad brush, yes, I know there are young people who are great to work with and who have oodles of maturity, and yes, there are older players who wallow in their own infantilism. It’s not all black or white. But there do seem to be certain tendencies among certain demographic segments that do seem to repeat themselves.

So that brings us back to the whole issue of should the two grids merge or not. My gut feeling is to say no--I really don’t think it would help the company make enough extra money in order to make it worth dealing with the extra issues...and yeah, face it, it would create a plethora of problems. Even with careful forethought like M was talking about, anything that is done to--or on--the platform usually becomes a jolly festival of unintended consequences.

Maybe they can plan like crazy and mitigate the potential quicksand puddles. Maybe. But in the meantime, they really kind of need to get their story straight.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Comings and Goings at the Lab -- Claudia takes over from Pathfinder

In light of the recent elimination of Pathfinder’s position with Linden Lab, a great many residents with an interest in education have expressed the fear that LL is moving away from promotion of the platform as a tool for educational purposes.

To some extent, this is understandable--but to be honest, as far as I can tell, the departure really means nothing more than a particular person who seemed to be an advocate of education in SL just won’t be around any more. People come and go. It's just time for Pathfinder to continue his life's journey elsewhere, and I hope he does well in his next gig.

That said, I should also point out that I never had any contact with Pathfinder (John Lester irl), because like many Lindens, he was simply irrelevant in the course of my activities on SL.

To be honest, I was never entirely clear on what Pathfinder’s real role was--at various points in his time at the Lab, I was led to understand that his title was something like “Evangelist, Market Development.” Although education was clearly one of his concerns, there were always indications that his role was to promote the general idea of Second Life (the evangelism bit) and to develop a marketing strategy that would seek to attract not just educational institutions to the platform, but also other types of potential corporate and institutional customers. Even as he was leaving LL, Pathfinder stated that he had been involved with healthcare as well as education customers.

So did he really make a big difference to education on the grid? Maybe he did. I have been told that he was responsible for bringing in some very large institutions of higher learning to SL. But again, being totally honest, I can’t really say for sure what his impact was. All I know is that I have talked with some educators who actually did have contact with him, and they did not find him to be particularly helpful or pleasant to work with. I am sure there are others who did in fact find dealing with Mr. Lester to be a useful and positive experience--but I just haven’t come across any of them yet.

But as they say at Swamp castle, "let's not quibble about 'oo killed 'oo."

The larger question, of course, is what comes next.

Many people seem to be assuming that the Lab won’t do anything to fill Pathfinder's role--that they eliminated his job, and therefore have eliminated the idea of having anyone addressing the interests of educational customers. I was wondering about this myself, as the Lab made no announcement about it that I could find. I decided to take advantage of the fact that T Linden (Tom Hale, LL’s Chief Product Officer) had recently added a comment to an older post on Miss Emilly Orr’s blog, in which he offered to answer other questions “off-thread.” Being the presumptuous old harpy that I am, I decided he obviously addressed this not only to Emilly, but to the rest of us who had commented on the thread, and I sent him a message asking if I could run some questions past him.

Mr. Hale graciously agreed to do so, and some of the things I asked him to comment about were questions related the departure of Pathfinder. He replied that while “we can't really discuss the departure of employees,” he was able to tell me the following:

“Claudia Linden is taking on Pathfinder's responsibilities, and she's been a strong and capable advocate for Education and Educational institutions in Second Life.”

Of course, as "head of educational support" (I apologize that I am unsure of what her exact title is, but I have seen her described thusly), Claudia was already substantially engaged with educators on the grid. So whatever it was that Pathfinder did is being added to what she already does. And clearly it's an ongoing process--today Claudia launched the first iteration of a directory of educational institutions in Second Life, which can be found here.

So I was gratified to see that she's as busy as ever. Now mind you, I’m going to be watching this particular project, because this directory thing was a pretty straightforward and focused single step: it seems to be structured as a simple directory of institutions of higher learning on the grid. I will be very curious to see what gets done in the future to promote and support the activities of individual educators and theorists, as well as non-traditional educational groups that are developing the most innovative and interesting learning opportunities on the platform.

Still, I was really freakin’ happy to hear from T that somebody had in fact been given the job of looking after whatever aspects of education that Pathfinder was looking after. I think it was a really important step to hear this from the proverbial horse's mouth.

I know I can be awful hard on the labsters sometimes. But like I have said before, I really try to be as fair as I can--I try to give credit where it is due. Hell, I was tickled just to see a Linden commenting on Emilly’s blog, which which must feel a bit like hostile territory for them. I have to admit, boys and girls, sometimes I feel like I’m a foam-at-the-mouth fanboy compared to Miss Orr. She's brilliant and hard and passionate, and so I thought it was brave--and damned smart--of T to not just be reading her stuff, but also to comment and to offer to chat further.

I keep hammering at this, but I think it is true more than ever that as the platform continues to evolve, the Lindens need to come out of the ivory tower to see and be seen in more venues and more discussions. Office hours are fine, but they have to visit more of the odd crevasses and backwaters of the grid and have more informal conversations with those of their current customers who have the perception that the Lab is not interested in them. In times of uncertainty and change, a company has to step up its efforts to communicate with their customers--and not just the highly vocal minority they usually interact with. It has to be demonstrated that they are going the extra mile to make a sincere effort to understand what we want and what we need. Things like T commenting on Emilly's blog certainly qualify as just that.

In sum, this is another of those occasions when--being the wild-eyed, spit-dribbling optimist that I am--I am seeing some things to be encouraged about.

And I wish Claudia well with her continuing efforts to support and encourage Education on the grid.

A Deadwood Story -- Plain Jane, part two

Without a word Dio rose from her seat at the 10’s lone table where she sat with JJ and some of the other raconteurs. Malachi--an older colored miner who worked on the side now and then as a bartender for Dio--was on duty that day, and he reached under the bar to pull out the canvas haversack which held her medical gear. He tossed it to her as she strode past. JJ Drinkwater suddenly found himself sitting in an empty saloon as everyone present had quickly followed in Dio’s wake. He looked around for a moment, and then realizing he was missing an opportunity to be a first-hand witness to the brutal nature of life on the frontier, he rose and went to see if he could find the scene of the shooting.

It wasn’t all that hard. A considerable crowd had gathered around the dance hall, which prominently featured its name, the “Bonanza” painted in large white letters on its false front. He pushed through the ring of onlookers to see his new acquaintance, Mrs. Kuhr, kneeling over the body of a man who lay in the street. She was evidently feeling for a pule on the victim’s neck. Next to her stood a stocky, heavily-muscled young man with tired face and short-cropped hair. Pinned to his expensive-lookin’ waistcoat was a star-shaped badge. He did not look like he was happiest man in the world at the moment.

Dio looked up at the young lawman and shook her head. He nodded and then turned towards the open door of shabby dance hall, his hand on the butt of his pistol.

“Goddammit Shortribs!” bellowed the deputy, “The stupid sonofabitch has gone ‘n fuckin’ died! Now come on out and let’s get this over with...”

An angry voice replied from the depths of the Bonanza, “Sweet Mother o’ Christ, Badger! What manner o’ fuckin’ damn fool do ya take me for? Twas a damned accident I hit that wretched greenhorn! Was tryin’ to shoot Dirty Jon Swenson, cuz he drew on me an’ shot first!”

Another voice--undoubtedly that of Mr. Svenson, and obviously drunk--enthusiastically chimed in from the dance hall’s interior, “Aye, Badger, thas’ right! Me ‘n Shorty was shootin’...but I ain’t mad no more...din’t mean for no one to go get shot...you ain’t gonna try to hang good ol’ Shorty, are ye?”

The deputy spat on the street. “Jeezus fuckin’ Christ, Swenson! Ya goddam drunken witless oaf! That ain’t for me to say...judge has to deal with that...but I gotta bring both o’ you silly bastards in for all o’ this!”

The crowd went dead silent as a man appeared in the doorway. JJ assumed this must be the one called “Shortribs” due to his diminutive stature. Although the writer’s powers of observation were somewhat slowed due to his consumption of substantial quantifies of excellent lager beer during the conversation at the 10, he did focus on an important detail: Mr. Shortribs had his gun drawn. To further complicate the situation, in a blink of an eye, with a rapidity that even in his somewhat befuzzled state JJ found quite impressive, the deputy--whose name was evidently Badger--had drawn his own weapon and had it pointed at the small man in the door of the dance hall.

Suddenly, JJ Drinkwater was starkly aware that the entire crowd of onlookers had evaporated as if by magic. The only ones besides himself who were still present were Badger and Shortribs--both still holding their guns on one another--along with Dio and the dead man. JJ then also noticed there was a tall, shapely blond woman, dressed in men’s clothing and wearing several guns, who was causally leaning against a porch post not twenty feet away, watching the proceedings with a studied indifference. Otherwise, the vicinity was utterly deserted.

“You ain’t takin’ me in, Badger. Twas a accident,” hissed the short man.

“Goddamit Shortribs,” replied Badger, “That man there is deader’n hell’s breakfast. Can you get that through your thick little skull? I can’t let ya walk away from this...”

JJ wondered how this was going to turn out. Neither man apparently really wanted to shoot--otherwise they would have already started pulling triggers--but neither was apparently willing to back down. Then JJ noticed Dio very slowly getting up from her kneeling position next to the body. In a deliberate, almost stately fashion she casually strolled over and placed herself directly in between the two men with the drawn firearms.

When she spoke her voice was eerily gentle and calm.

“Come on boys. This ain’t makin’ no sense. Shorty, if ye go quiet-like, ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to ye. Ye said yerself, ye drew in self defense, an’ Dirty Jon admits it...he shot first. The feller ye hit--twas a accident. They ain’t gonna hang ye fer that. An’ Dirty Jon, he’ll probbly only do a lil’ time fer drawin’ on ye an’ tryin’ to kill ye...hell, folks do that alla time, an' it sounds like he’s sorry. Ye are sorry, ain’t ye Jon?”

“YES MA’AM!” came the cheerful inebriated reply from inside the Bonanza. “Damnably sorry ‘n regretful!”

“Now look, Shorty,” Dio continued, “yeah, ye kin try to shoot it out with Badger, and ye might get kilt, or ye might kill him. But if’n ye do kill him, law won’t ever let ye alone. They’ll hunt ye down like a goddam rabid dog, once ye’ve taken the life of a lawman.”

She turned to the deputy.

“Badger, pard, listen...tis best we try to work this out peaceable--if’n ye have to kill Shorty tryin’ to take ‘im, well, shitfire, ye know the man has a great many friends in this sorry lil’ town. Some of ‘em would mos’ likely come gunnin’ for ye as a consequence, an’ then things would jus' get real goddam complicated. How about ye promise Shorty he’s gonna get a fair trial--then I shall count to three, an both o' y’all just reholster on three.“

Badger looked thoughtful for a moment and then nodded.

“Allright, Shortribs--ya got my word...fair trial...all on the up and up. I will put away my gun when Dio counts to three, if you will...”

There was a pause. Finally the short man answered. “I’m agreeable.”

Dio slowly counted to three and the men cautiously reholstered their weapons. It was simple after that: Badger did not even bother to put handcuffs on Shorty, though he told him he would have to take his weapon when they got to the jail. Taking Swenson in proved simple as well, as in his drunken state he insisted that he would happily accompany Shortribs, in order to keep him company. Dirty Jon was at that stage of inebriation where he was rather comically declaring his undying friendship for the little man, and repeatedly expressed his sincere regret for having tried to kill him.

Before Badger led them off to the calaboose, Dio gently laid a hand on Shorty’s shoulder.

“Thank ye fer bein’ reasonable. So what was it...arguin’ o’er a gal?”

Shortribs laughed sardonically, “Ain’t it always gonna be about a woman?”

Dio sighed. “Goddam good thing ol’ Dirty Jon is such a piss-poor shot.”

The little man grinned a bit. “Don’t hurt that I’m a turrible target, as well...”

Dio chuckled and then turned to wave at the tall young woman leaning against the porch post. The well-armed blond nodded and ambled off down the street. Meanwhile, JJ Drinkwater had come up to stand next to Dio as she repacked her medical bag. Some of the men who had disappeared when the guns had been drawn were slowly reappearing, and Dio asked them to fetch a cart and take the dead man to Mr. Sorrowman’s.

Finally JJ spoke,

“Miss Dio...that was quite remarkable...and...well...standing in between two men with drawn firearms like that to stop them from....I must say, I’m just...”

Dio interrupted him. “Aw hell’s britches JJ! Twarn’t no dreadful great act o’ bravery or nothin’...I figgerd they din’t really want to shoot or git shot o’er such foolishness...an’ ‘sides..that tall gal who was o’er yonder...she had m’ back...if’n one of ‘em had showed signs o’ makin’ a move to actually fire, she’d a had iron out faster than ye can say grandma’s knickers and ventilated ‘em.”

A look of comprehension suddenly passed over the writer’s face. “Oh my word..was that..was that the female scout known as Calamity Jane? I have read about her in some publications..there’s this guide to the Black Hills that a gentleman named Horatio Maguire has written...and tales I heard in Sidney, but really didn’t give much credence to...”

Dio shook her head and laughed. “Oh satan’s whiskers, JJ! In the name Jeezus an his happy horn-blowin’ angels, don’t EVER say such a thing to that gal’s face. That ain’t Martha Canary--that’s Roku Hallard--she’s a sometime security guard and sometime courtesan, an’ a good friend o’ mine...an’ she would take great offense at bein’ mistaken fer such a creature as Calamity Jane. You go ‘n ask her if’n she’s that person, an’ she mos’ likely would rip yer arm clean outta its socket, an’ then wallop ye o’er the head with the damned thing to chastise ye fer insultin’ her so.”

JJ Drinkwater looked puzzled.

“Would ye care to meet the actual Calamity Jane?” asked Dio. “Come on then..she’s more’n likely right there in the Bonanza. She works pretty regular as a dance hall gal, among other things.”

Dio walked over to the door of the dance hall and peered in. “Hey Sam!” she called out. “Is Martha in there?”

Whoever Sam was, he replied in the affirmative and Dio gestured for JJ to follow her into the dim interior of the Bonanza. She led him back to a table at the rear of the hall, where a slightly-built woman in a stained and mended dress was slumped over, apparently passed out from a session of personal interaction with a bottle of red eye that stood nearly empty by her elbow.

Dio grasped a handful of the short greasy hair on the back of the woman’s head and lifted it so JJ could see her plain, worn face.

“Mr. JJ Drinkwater, may I present to ye Miss Martha Canary, alias Calamity Jane,” said Dio in a very formal tone.

She then let go of the woman’s hair allowing her head to slump back on to the table top with a dull “thunk.” Dio noticed the look of consternation and disappointment that marked the writer’s face.

“Sometimes feet o’ clay extend all the way up t’ the neck,” she commented dryly.
to be continued...

A Deadwood story -- Plain Jane, part one


You know, to read some of the various accounts of life in the Black Hills during the Gold Rush back in the seventies, you would think that the only women present were either dissolute members of the demi-monde, or the occasional starched and proper lady, struggling to impose some element of civilization upon the situation.

Of course, truth is, it weren’t that simple. Truth never is.

In fact, there was actually a considerable variety of women of all classes, dispositions, and degrees of moral turpitude present in 1876 to ’77. Certainly they were greatly outnumbered by the men folk, but they were there nonetheless--hardworking laundresses and cooks, sturdy and capable farm-wives who followed the men who followed their dreams of golden wealth, and even more than a few enterprising businesswomen--as well as the numerous chippies and dance-hall gals, and the very occasional proper lady or two. And if you really want to get at the quartz-bearing, bed-rock, honest-to-Peter reality of it, in those days it was actually pretty challenging to fit a great many of the Black Hills women-folk into one hard-and-fast category or another.

Nossir, finding truth of any kind is not a simple thing.

The difficulty of sorting out truth and myth of the Gold Rush days did not stop many writers and journalists from being drawn to the Dakota Territory at the time, lookin’ for a good story. But then after all, most of those scribblers only had at best a nodding acquaintance with truth. And more than a few of them were downright strangers to the concept. Even so, there were a handful who had more than a a passing interest in uncovering good tales that also had the benefit of some foundation in reality.

Like there was this one gent named Drinkwater who came through Deadwood in the early part of ’77. Mr. Drinkwater stands out in memory as he was one of the few who actually expressed a genuine commitment to accuracy.

If you been there when J.J. Drinkwater got off the stage from Sidney and walked across the bridge into town, you would have seen a tall, thin fellah with small spectacles, a tad on into middling age and a bit balding on top in the back, but still attractive with sharp features and these piercing eyes that bespoke a curious mind and hard-edged intelligence of the sort that one don’t encounter all that often. He strolled down Main, his modest carpet bag in one hand and a leather dispatch pouch for the tools of his scribbler’s trade slung over his shoulder, surveying the bustle as he went. If you had encountered him on that day, you coulda told he was takin’ it all in, takin’ mental notes....makin’ no judgments as of yet, but still deeply engaged in the process of breathing in and absorbing all the clues and evidence and details that were laid out to be seen by those who, like Mr. Drinkwater, had a desire to actually look for ‘em.

He stopped in front of the Saloon No. 10. A woman, probably in her 40s, was busily engaged in sweeping the porch. Drinkwater observed that she was eccentrically dressed by eastern standards, wearing a plain black wool skirt with an impeccably clean apron, a stylish man’s gray wool waistcoat with shining brass buttons, and beneath that, a red flannel workman’s shirt, buttoned to the neck and with the sleeves rolled up. The woman’s skirt was a little shorter than was normally considered acceptable by most proper ladies, ending slightly above the ankles--undoubtedly, thought Drinkwater, to keep the hem from trailing in the mud and appallingly diverse shit that made up the street surfaces in this town. The shorter length of the simple skirt revealed a pair of well-worn, tall-heeled, pointed-toe boots of the type favored by Texican cowhands. But most interesting of all from the writer’s perspective was what she wore around her waist: a sturdy leather belt with a large oval Confederate army “CS” buckle; and hanging from the belt, an immense holster that was weighted down with an equally massive revolver.

Mr. Drinkwater could not help thinking that clearly, he was not in Chicago anymore. He walked over and tipped his hat, smiling politely.

“Good day to you, madam.”

“Well, a good day to you as well, sir,” replied the woman, looking up from her sweeping with what Drinkwater found to be a surprisingly genuine and welcoming smile. He had gotten used to small town folk, especially on the flint-hard edge of the frontier, to often be somewhat taciturn or downright hostile in the presence of someone like himself who came across as a bit of a “dandy.”

“Might I enquire if this would be the same Number 10 saloon where James Butler Hickok was assassinated?

The woman’s friendly smile flickered and faded slightly, and her face took on an expression that was one of cool politeness.

“Yessir, indeed it is. But if yer wishin’ to gaze at the very chair he sat upon when he was shot, or the actual table stained with his gore, ye need go elsewhere--there are multiple examples o’ both available for viewing at a number o’ establishments in this town...an’ some other towns as well, unless I am very much mistaken.”

Drinkwater could tell this was not the first time--nor the fiftieth--that the woman had been asked this question. He sat down his carpet bag, took off his hat, and unapologetically looked her straight in the eye.

“No, madam. I assure you I have no desire to stand transfixed by artifacts of spurious provenance...nor even to look upon genuine mementos of the tragedy for that matter. I merely wished to study the site of the event, in order to gain some additional perspective on what actually transpired. Allow me to introduce myself: JJ Drinkwater, at your service. Forgive me if I came across as some mere tourist with a taste for the macabre and sensational--I am a writer, and my interest is the true and real stories of our western frontier.”

The woman’s expression softened slightly, but she apparently was still experiencing some uncertainty. Drinkwater felt like her gaze was giving him careful consideration...as if she was sizing him up, reading what was in his eyes as well as in his words. Suddenly she stuck out a brutally scarred, heavily calloused hand to shake.

“Pleased to meet ye. I’m the widow Kuhr, tho’ mos’ folks hereabouts call me Dio. Yer welcome to do so, if’n ye care to.”

The writer unhesitatingly took her hand and gave it a firm shake. “I am pleased to meet you as well, Miss Dio. I would be gratified if you would call me JJ. Might I ask who is the present owner of this establishment?”

Dio laughed. “Yer shakin’ paws with her, pard...I took it over sometime after the death o’ Mr. Hickok. Kin I interest ye in a mug o’ lager beer? Maybe some grub, bein’ as it looks as tho’ ye just got off’n the coach.”

JJ was more than happy to take advantage of her offer, and was again surprised when the woman refused payment for the first beer and the plate of hot venison stew she provided him. He went through a good many more beers in the course of the afternoon--all of which he paid for, along with rounds he bought for various and sundry locals who came by and joined in the conversation. Mrs. Kuhr and her customers went into considerable detail with him regarding what they knew about Wild Bill Hickok--often from first hand experience.

He was quietly thrilled to learn that his hostess had evidently come in on the same wagon train that had brought Hickok to Deadwood in July of ‘76. Yet she made no grand claims of close friendship with the man or personal involvement in any of his adventures--something that inclined JJ to give greater credence to what she told him. She’d had only a passing acquaintance with the famous gunfighter, and had some random observations to share regarding Wild Bill’s brief sojourn in the Black Hills, but her real value to Drinkwater’s research was in her running commentary on the stories that were told by others. She served as a well-grounded Greek chorus, either confirming the accuracy of certain tales, or lambasting the storytellers when they strayed from the truth as she understood it, often doing so with the aid of some extremely colorful vocabulary. She also spent some time explaining the changes she made to the interior of the Saloon No. 10, so that JJ could better picture in his mind how it appeared and functioned at the time of Hickok’s murder.

Suddenly, this pleasant and entertaining storytelling session was interrupted by the sound of gunfire from down the street. Moments later, there was sound of small feet pounding down the boards of the sidewalk and a small flaxen-haired girl, who looked to JJ to be about 10 or 11 years old, burst through the door of the saloon.

“Dio! They say you’re needed down at the Bonanza dance hall! Some man got shot and they can’t find Doc Morpork!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Still pondering this one -- learning and "education" in SL, cont.

Well the title pretty much says it all: I'm still struggling with this, I'm still talking to very bright and thoughtful people who are trying teach in SL and who are trying to understand how educators can successfully use the platform to teach and to facilitate and encourage learning....and I still don't have some Big Answer that will smack you over the head the rubber chicken of profundity and squeeze you in the appallingly enthusiastic bear-hug of irrefutable truth. The best I can give you right now is that people are still experimenting and still trying to understand what will consistently work as an approach to education in SL. And I think what they are trying to figure out is really important.

Now, there does seem to be some consensus among the people I talk to about this subject as to what doesn't work very well. As we have discussed previously, there is pretty consistent agreement that if a teacher or an institution tries to just transplant what they do in the bricks and mortar world to a virtual world, the results are going to be mediocre at best.

For example I had the following conversation with John Carter McKnight, an adjunct professor of Law at Arizona State University, who brings students from into WoW and SL for learning experiences:

Diogenes Kuhr: what we are talking about..what you do with a guild in Wow, and what you could do with a roleplay town in SL...
Diogenes Kuhr: it's real different from what you can and will do with a class in organic space
JCM: yes
Diogenes Kuhr: so is this another indication that it is in fact true that one of the things that tends to not work well here is to try to just transfer your meatspace methodology and approach to the virtual?
JCM: yes yes yes
JCM: this is not a good medium for talking heads lectures, and worse for seminar discussion - though viewer 2.0 is a huge leap forward

I frankly have big issues with colleges and universities that come into a world like SL and simply build a virtual recreation of their campus and square box classrooms. And it's the same issues I have with museums that come in and try to recreate exhibits and environments that are structurally and didactically analogous to what they do in the real world. But why don't these traditional approaches to instructional design work terribly well in virtual spaces? I recently went to one of the big university virtual campuses in SL, just to have a look around, and what I found was what I find on museum spaces that don't work either: an empty, uninteresting, sterile environment, devoid of excitement, devoid of life...and largely devoid of other people.

In fact, on this campus I visited, I ran into a lone student, who asked me if I was associated with the school. Her confusion was understandable, because silly old me--I had inadvertently neglected to remove my "professor" tag from the Hogwarts United rp sim. But it turned out to be a happy accident, as the combination of my having the tag and being on the campus of the school gave her the confidence to approach me and to say hello. It seems that the school had pretty much brought students in, given them a minimal bit of mentoring, and then turned them loose to "explore" SL on their own. It was essentially sink or swim, and this student had not reached a comfort level that enabled her to venture forth into the wilds of SL--which also wasn't surprising being as she had heard horror stories from other students about entering SL though the regualr noobie portals and suffering various abuse and indignities (she had been brought in and started at the school's virtual campus, and so had been spared that unhappy experience).

So I spent some time, explaining a few things, and took her out to visit different places of interest--I told her about places like Caledon and Deadwood, and all the various steampunk communities, and helped her sort out a few of the tricks you need to know to make SL look better and run better....and by golly within a week, this gal had just blossomed! She was traveling around on her own, had got a cottage and furnished it, had some great Victorian clothing, and even came and did some rp me with in Deadwood!

It doesn't take much, when you're mentoring someone who isn't an idiot. So why don't the big edusaurians put more effort into organizing some mentoring arrangements with people who really know how to enjoy and utilize the platform? Technology does not replace the human element in education. It does not even make things easier or more convenient for the educators. Sweet Jeezus and his fuzzy lil' donkey, boys, if you bring students in here, you have a responsibility to foster and facilitate--don't just turn 'em loose and let natural selection take its course.

There is another good reason for doing this--as Dr. Suzanne Aurilio has pointed out, there is an exciting dynamic in learning in SL--a dynamic that she witnessed when she did the study for her dissertation. The successful learning that we see happening--and it's not just Suzanne seeing it , but it's what I see in places like Deadwood--involves a fascinating sort of socially interactive self-directed learning that occurs in a collective, mutually supportive context.

In short, what we have seen work well on the grid so far are examples of people learning as they motivate and encourage one another, help others deal with the unique social and technological aspects of life in-world, and have others to help them when they get stuck.

That does however, bring up a problem that John and I also discussed. If the most successful learning on the grid seems to happen primarily in the context of socially interactive, informal circumstances, then what about traditional students--the ones who come to SL within an institutional context, and who for the most part range in age from their late teens to early 20s?

The issue of age may be signficant: after all, the learners in Dr. Aurilio's study were older women; the youngest people I have successfully engaged with in learning situations in Caledon and Deadwood are in their 30s; and the nice gal I helped to be able to leave the big empty virtual campus? Also an older student. So is SL simply something that isn't going to work well for the usual student demographic? Some educators would argue that it hasn't so far.

John proposed an interesting explanation for this:

JCM: it seems a lot of 20-somethings, especially those in school, don't see SL filling any need for them
JCM: they socialize constantly already
JCM: they're on campus, so getting more than their fill of talks and events
JCM: so, no real point for them
Diogenes Kuhr: that makes sense..
JCM: yeah, basically SL re-creates for the rest of us what they have already - youth, health, fun, adventure, intellectual enrichment :p

So does that mean educators should give up and just keep focusing on older learners in mutually supportive, socially interactive (yet still largely informal) arrangements? Should the colleges and universties jsut de-rez their virtual campuses and go back to meatspace?

No. Hell No. Things are just now starting to get interesting.

There are some really smart people trying to figure out how to take what they are learning from those older nontraditional, mutually supportive, self directed learners, and to apply that in designing systems and structures that will enable educators to foster a more positive, consistent learning experience for their traditional students.

Well I had said I wasn't gonna smack you with the rubber chicken of profundity, so let me just sit you down on the whoopee cushion of opinion:

I think the schools in SL probably should go ahead and de-rez those big prim ivory towers with their ivy-walled textures...but then not abandon the space. Keep the space and start experimenting. They need to try new experiments like Dr. Aurilio is pursuing with her students from San Diego State, and they need to be prepared to think really damned carefully about what they are trying to accomplish, and then examine the results to see what actually happened and why. Dr. Aurilio put it this way to me:

SA: I will tell you this....
SA: On our initiative website, you'll see "educational outcomes" and when I finish it, an assessment/evaluation plan
SA: and from them I should be able to make some legitimate claims about the initiative's impact.

And as John says, these virtual education spaces need "small group orientation, and a lot of it."

And what about Linden lab? What can they do to facilitate this process of experimentation, of honest assessment, and ultimately, educational innovation?

I think the Lab needs to stop trying to just make money off educators by simply trying to sell them classrooms in a box. The Lab should encourage schools to think about how they can actually utilize the platform for new approaches to learning. And LL should encourage academics to look upon the grid's diverse communties and resdients as potential partners--not just as curiosities to be "studied."

And for Chirssakes, they need to do something about the grieftards who make the initial experience for newcomers such an unpleasant mess. They should put staff at the noobie portals to stand guard....send in ringers posing as noobs, and when they get harassed, kill and ban the smarmy little pencildicks who are the perps. Nobody is going to learn well in an environment that comes across as hostile from the get-go. So LL must clean that up. It's bad for learning, and by gawd, it's bad for business.

But hell, that's just my opinion.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

...and another one bites the dust -- the closing of There.com

There soon won't be any "There" there. Say goodbye to the waving couple from the intro page at There.com

I heard today through twitter that the virtual world of There.com would have its plug pulled on March 9, 2010. I may be a sentimental old broad at times, but in this case, to be perfectly honest, I’m not feeling particularly mournful about this turn of events. My friend Aldo once commented about Second Life that he looked on it “not just as a product in transition, but also as a transitional product,” and I think that is a reality that applies to all virtual worlds. They are like organic entities and they have a lifespan: they are born, they grow and develop, and eventually, they either die or evolve into something new. According to the announcement by the guys who run “There,” the bad economy finally caught up with them and it was no longer financially viable.

That may be true...or at least part of the truth. It also may be that “There” is a platform that can no longer successfully compete in the current market because of its limitations and/or somewhat uninspiring graphics. It may simply be obsolete. I can’t really say, because I have no direct firsthand knowledge of what has been going on in that particular VW. “There” was a platform that I never utilized, or even tried out, as far as I can remember. To be honest, I may have given it a shot a long, long time ago. But obviously, if I did try it, the experience didn’t make much of an impression on me.

At same time, I would like to point out that I was very much aware of it in its early days. “There” came out of Beta in October 2003, and was starting to attract users around the time I was getting pretty heavily involved in “The Sims Online,” another pioneering version of a virtual world. I thoroughly enjoyed TSO until the fall of 2004, when I decided to go try something else. My choices were either Second Life or “There.” They both seemed like they offered significant advances over TSO, and they both offered the opportunity to escape from the oppressive feudalism of life with Electronic Arts, the hateful, turnip-squeezing, Borg-like corporate collective that had taken control of The Sims Online. I picked Second Life only because most of my TSO friends who jumped ship had chosen to go to that platform. I wanted to be where my friends were, and if they preferred SL, that was good enough for me. And hell’s britches, anything was better than remaining in the evil, despotic clutches of EA.

For many other people, however, I think “There” represented an important transitional product from a highly structured and overly-controlled world like TSO, to the more open-ended environment of Second Life. For one thing, there was user-created content in “There,” but the process was overseen by the company, which very strictly vetted user-made content before it showed up in-world. I understand there was far less roleplaying in “There,” as it was promoted--and functioned--primarily as a multi-dimensional social platform. This focus was reinforced by developments such as the 2008 launch of ThereConnect, which enabled There.com members to display their in-world profiles, skills, groups and upcoming events on their Facebook pages. Around the same time, “There” introduced ThereIM, an instant messaging client that allowed Therians to communicate with other members’ avatars, whether or not they were signed into the virtual world. Furthermore, the business model for “There” was based on the idea that the nature of the technology would make it a more easily and generally accessible virtual world than something like SL. The company trumpeted the idea that you didn’t need an expensive high-end computer or even a super-fast connection to use “There.” Never having spent time in “There,” I can’t tell you if this meant that while anyone could get into the world, they were going to have a shitty experience if they had a less powerful machine and basic service. But I guess if you just going to use “There” as little more than an animated chat room, any such issues probably didn’t matter so much.

Nonetheless, it would seem that the creators of "There" believe that this strategic choice is at the heart of what brought about the imminent demise of there VW. Here’s how the “There” guys explained it on their site :

“Unlike other products, There was designed from the beginning to be a welcoming and comfortable place for everyone - not just gamers, not just people over 18, not just people with high end computers, and not just people on broadband.... We believe that all of this together made a world which was, well, like "real life", with just the right level of unreality thrown in. Standards for speech, interaction, avatar dress, and even the amount of "blood and gore" were pretty much what you'd expect in the real world, and we believe that it's one of the many things which made There special, accessible, and attractive to people from all over the United States and the world -- not just the privileged with high-end machines and broadband connections.

Unfortunately, this also meant that There.com's customers were hardest hit by the recession, and, so was There. While our membership numbers and the number of people in the world have continued to grow, there has been a marked decrease in revenue, which, in these economic times, is no surprise.

Throughout the last year and this quarter, we have fought the good fight by churning out new features and revisions as fast as we possibly could. Our hats have to go off to the team, which have in a very short time introduced a whole new suite of casual games, a completely new foundation for our user interface, improved internal efficiencies for the product, real estate, a whole new level of Community Involvement, etc, etc. On top of that, we've revised our first user experience several times, making the whole process for registering and getting into the world (and continued to be amused when the same features appeared in other worlds).

But, at the end of the day, we can't cure the recession, and at some point we have to stop writing checks to keep the world open. There's nothing more we would like to avoid this, but There is a business, and a business that can't support itself doesn't work. Before the recession hit, we were incredibly confident and all indicators were "directionally correct" and we had every reason to believe growth would continue. But, as many of you know personally, the downturn has been prolonged and severe, and ultimately pervasive.”

So basically, these guys are saying they tried their darndest to make this world into something that was broadly appealing, easily accessible and connected to social media, and so, consequently, ripe for mass adoption. But they couldn’t make it pay in the end--according to them because their target audience got walloped the hardest by the recession.

OK. I think I can kind of go along with the concept that the economy can be seen as a factor. But I have to admit I’m thinking there is more to this than just the idea that their primary audience has less disposable income and therefore had to cut back on something, and so are spending less on things like online amusements. That’s a sorta kinda good theory, but at the same time, there are reports that online gaming activity in general is not declining. In fact, as happened with the Great Depression, people seem to have been looking for cost effective forms of entertainment and that spending is actually up in areas such as toys and gaming.

So what’s really killing “There?” Has its time simply come? Did the attempt to go for mass adoption hasten the process of natural selection? I just don’t have the time or energy to really pick it apart. But I sure as hell hope our friends at the Lab are carefully analyzing what happened to “There.” The Lindens have an opportunity here to do a case study of a virtual world that took a path to extinction rather than evolution. I hope they take it very seriously and learn some things that will keep them from making SL go dodo before its time.

I will say this: I am convinced that a key difference between these two worlds is that Second Life residents have so much more freedom in what they choose to create. So many of our various experiments in education and the arts, so much of our roleplay and community building, so much of our resident-based commercial activity grew out of people being able to say, ”hey, I want to to make this or that” without first having to run it through some vetting process.

But again, that’s just my gut feeling. I would be curious what some of you who had more experience with “There” thought of it, and what you think killed it.