Monthly Archives: November 2006

Good Way To Resume Posting

It’s always good to have a good thing to resume posting with after a small hiatus…and it was pleasing to get the news that another Shelterite has joined the ranks of SL bloggers. Patience Xie, welcome to the Evans Avenue Exit blogroll.

I most often see Patience in the company of Reina Quine, shockedfrog Shriner, and/or Alexander Lapointe; she was present last night as shocked and I matched wits over the Shelter in Exile’s SLTrivia board, among other times I’ve seen her, so she meets the criteria for the blogroll. She’s well known for her quick wit, but is also a great helper of newbies, as are many Shelter regulars.

Her introductory post says about her, “She is a tempermental girl named after a virtue she sorely lacks.” That gave me a hook for a title for her: “The Ironically Named.” Yet there’s something delightfully old-fashioned about the name…it’s almost like a name I’d expect from a resident of Caledon. (Pati, if you’ve never seen it, it’s definitely a must-see; I find it visually soothing and quite charming. And they’re expanding rapidly…I think they’re getting up to 13 sims now. That’s at least triple the size that fair isle was when I first joined…)

Do check her new blog out, if you get a chance…and keep your eye on her.

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Leavin’ On A Jet Plane…

Family matters necessitate that I travel out to California for a few days…during which time I expect that I’ll be out of touch with even quotidian Web sites and E-mail, let alone the Grid.  However, hope springs eternal, and I’ll be bringing the client install files for Windows and Mac OS X tucked away on a USB key–just in case.

Griefers, don’t nuke the Grid while I’m gone…and LL, don’t sell it to the Beast of Redmond

And if you want interesting things to read, go over to Electric Minds…there’s always a good conversation going on.

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The Two-Million Horizon

From the desk of Tateru NinoTateru was kind enough to slip me a link to her latest posting on population counts. As an odd coincidence, earlier that evening, I had been discussing with Allie how soon we might reach the 2-million-registered-users mark. I was of the opinion that we’d certainly hit the mark before the middle of 2007. Well, turns out I was high. Way high. Read for yourself when the projections say we’ll break 2 million…you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.

With this many new users streaming in–as much as 35,000 per day in some recent days–the volunteer infrastructure is feeling the pinch:

Very few of them are active. The small numbers of Mentors and live-helpers are burned out. Help Islands don’t get a lot of love from the Mentors right now. There aren’t enough active Mentors to cover them anyway. […]

Pathfinder Linden said at a recent volunteer meeting that Linden Lab is working on aggressive measures to improve and support the volunteer programs, indicating that more Linden staff were to be funnelled into the volunteer system.

Well, he can start by making it easier to get into the volunteer program in the first place. Last I heard, applications for volunteer positions (Mentors, Greeters, Live Helpers) were still taking six weeks or more to process; Danielle had just managed to get into the Mentor and Greeter programs (though she didn’t actually get the group memberships) before the fire. Six weeks is long enough for SL to be buried in another tsunami of new accounts. I don’t get what the delay is; does Jeska have to approve every new volunteer application personally? If so, we’ve definitely got a scalability problem here…and, given the burnout rate, LL needs to be taking in volunteers as fast, if not faster, than they lose them in order to have some hope of getting these problems under control. Resident-run organizations like NCI and the Shelter(s) can fill part of the gap, but they can’t cover the Help Islands, which are off-limits to all but incoming newbies and LL’s volunteer groups.

One of the things that could be cause for concern is the “retention rate” of all these new users, i.e., how many of them decide to come back for more. Philip claims it’s 10%, while the volunteers Tat spoke with seemed to think it was closer to 2%. I’m not sure how good the volunteers’ numbers are, since there have to be a few bright people who manage to figure out the world without ever dealing with the volunteer corps, and get hooked anyhow (such as, for example, me 🙂 ). Yet that type can’t be all that common…so I suspect Phil’s numbers may be a bit high, too. And of those 90% or 98% or whatever that fall by the wayside…do they just drift away, never to be heard from again? Or do they become the cynical types you see posting on Slashdot in comments to every SL-related story, things like, “Second Life? More like, ‘Get a life!'” (This comment and its replies are an example.) The answer could be crucial to SL’s future image, especially among demographics you’d think would be a heavy source of new Residents.

Allie seems to think that most of these new accounts are “camping-bot alts,” or, as she put it, “the same 15,000 people are creating 15 new alts a week.” (Well, she’s not creating 15 alts a week, and neither am I, so that’s 14,998 people, then. 🙂 ) One might be tempted to say so, given that the 60-day logins and the login sessions figures seem to be, not flat, but likely rising at a slower pace. I’m not so sure what Allie says is true…but in the end, it may not matter what the real explanation is. That “total signed up” figure is more psychological and marketing-inspired than anything else, kind of like the “Over X Billion Served” signs you used to see out in front of your local McDonald’s. (Nowadays, those signs just say “Billions Served,” or even, Carl Sagan-like, “Billions and Billions Served.”) The number serves LL’s purpose, in that they can hype the figures to businesses who will pay them money to establish their in-world presence, and thus bring LL closer to profitability…and that’s the ultimate goal of any corporation, or at least any decent one, no matter how lofty their other goals might seem.

The increased numbers also bring more good press…and this is a “virtuous circle,” too, as good press brings increased numbers of signups. Yet even “bad” press also seems to bring increased numbers of signups…over 35,000 have signed up this week, even in the wake of the CopyBot brouhaha. We saw this last time, too, as the news of the Web site hack and the mass password changes brought increased signups, helping push SL “over the top” of the 1-million mark weeks ahead of expectations. I guess the old saying about the press really is true…”It doesn’t matter what they say about you, as long as they spell your name right.”

It wasn’t even a month ago that I last wrote about this issue. Back then, I closed it this way: “I don’t have any answers as to what’s to come (and I’m pretty sure Tateru doesn’t either). Just questions. But–like metaphysics–what fascinating questions!” Well, the answers are still as elusive as ever, and the questions are not only increasingly fascinating, they’re becoming increasingly critical to the future of the Grid. One thing is apparent, though: We’re riding a rocket. And, no matter what the destination is, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

“To infinity–and beyond!” – Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story

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CopyBot: Endgame or Detour?

Unless you’ve been on the SL equivalent of Mars for the past week or so, you’ve probably heard about the brouhaha surrounding “CopyBot,” a program which is apparently capable of duplicating objects, right down to textures and animations. It relies on the Open Source libsecondlife effort, which is a library to interpret the protocol used by the SL client that is currently in development. I’m going to try and piece together what is known, and then offer a few observations.

When the news first broke about the existence of this device, there was a great hue and cry from the content creators of SL…spurred along by a response from Robin Linden that seemed lukewarm at best. She said “copying is not necessarily theft,” and, while she is technically correct, that was probably the wrong thing to say at that point. Eventually, LL clarified its position:

[…] the use of CopyBot or any other external application to make unauthorized duplicates within Second Life will be treated as a violation of Section 4.2 of the Second Life Terms of Service and may result in your account(s) being banned from Second Life.

But, by then, the damage was done. Reports started surfacing of businesses closing due to the potential for CopyBot abuse, and a spike on the LindeX at the same time indicated panic selling of L$ might have begun. The affair gave every sign of turning into a full-scale witch hunt, which even ensnared an innocent maker of vendors. Some businesses issued stern warnings about the use of CopyBot (incidentally, after seeing the warning from GuRL 6, I crafted a similar one on behalf of Don’t Panic! Designs). Others put up “CopyBot blocker devices” that repeat the “!quit” command over and over, in an attempt to force any instance of CopyBot that might be listening nearby to close down. And, while the libSL developers protested their innocence, pointing out that they had pulled the source for CopyBot out of their development repository, evidence surfaced that the developers were gleefully anticipating the havoc they would wreak with their “object stealer.”

Prokofy Neva, of course, is utterly ripshit, accusing the libSL group of being nothing more than a glorified griefer group, and accusing LL of being, at minimum, utterly clueless, if not outright malicious, for associating with such. On another side of the issue, the esteemed Ms. Ordinal Malaprop contends:

To be quite honest I doubt that there will be many instances of copying and distribution resulting from these tools in practice; the vast majority of residents have no interest in such activities, and the vast majority of those left have not the technical abilities to carry them out or the knowledge that they are possible.

[…]

To be honest it is too early to tell what sort of development of the Copying Facilities and changes to the world will result, and I would say that it is *certainly* premature to shut up shop, but the mere idea is disturbing to many.

And now we have some hard data on the impact of CopyBot: just uner 100 complaints total, involving some 50 individual Residents, over the course of a few days. While even a fraction of that number of complaints would certainly be cause for some heightened concern, the fact that so few people were involved–less than 1% of the typical number of people logged into SL at any given time, let alone the total number of active or registered accounts–would scarcely seem to mean The End Of The World As We Know It. Perhaps Ms. Malaprop’s statement is closer to the truth of the matter…as is Tateru Nino’s:

The most severe effect that copybot will have on Second Life will be our reaction to what we /fear/ will be done with it, rather than anything that is actually done.

The first observation I could offer is that Cory Linden is right: There is no way to completely stop someone from copying an object, or at least the physical properties and textures thereof, in SL. If it can be displayed, it can be copied. This is like the old axiom about scrambled cable channels: no matter how badly the video signal was scrambled, somehow it had to be capable of being de-scrambled so it could be sent to a normal TV set. People have already had success in copying textures from SL by intercepting the stream of information going from the SL client program to the graphics driver that displays it. You can’t stop that without a fundamental shift in the way the graphics subsystem operates…something which falls firmly into the realm of Things That Are Not Going To Happen.

Which leads me to another fundamental point: you cannot assume a secure client. Even if someone runs the unmodified client as downloaded straight from LL, you have to assume that this client will be run on “Satan’s computer.” People will packet sniff, they will disassemble, they will do anything they have to to try and break your protocol or data format or security system, if they want to badly enough. They could even be running the client inside a VMware virtual machine or equivalent, with their debugging tools on the “outside” of the VM, and the client would never even know it was being watched.

Given the above two points, an effort like libsecondlife was pretty much inevitable…and, in this day and age, since the power of Open Source is apparent in many ways these days (see: Linux, GNU, Mozilla, OpenOffice.org, etc. ad nauseam), it was natural for the interested parties to combine their efforts into an Open Source project. Some people have held that they shouldn’t have opened the source, since it makes the code far too accessible to those interested in griefing. My response to that: Open Source is not to blame here. Not having the source would not make griefers’ tasks impossible, just more difficult. At least, in this instance, people, including LL, have some knowledge of what the libsecondlife developers were up to. Another group, working in secret and sharing their knowledge only between themselves, could have accomplished the same thing, albeit slower. CopyBot might have appeared, not today, but several years down the road…say, when SL had become even more successful and accepted by RL corporations…and when a successful security attack would be far more damaging than it is today. And combating the efforts of such a group would be more difficult; you might have to reverse-engineer their attack program to figure out what the vulnerability is and stop it.

This is not to say that we’re in the best of all possible worlds now. It looks to me like the libsecondlife project needs to “clean house” in a big way. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend that LL, which has some interest in libSL right now anyway, should take over the administration of the project entirely, and should eject developers from the project who are using the tools to intentionally violate the TOS. If it’s that valuable of a tool to them, for use in spotting possible exploits and such, why aren’t they administering it? They might, for instance, establish a “libsecondlife foundation” to hold the code in trust and coordinate its further development; this would be similar to the relationship that currently exists between the Jabber project and its corporate sponsor, Jabber Inc. of Denver.

People would also do well to remember that the CopyBot as it currently exists is not capable of making perfect copies of all objects. It cannot, in particular, copy scripts. This makes sense, as scripts are designed to be executed on the server; the only time the client ever sees the script source is while it’s being edited. In this limitation might lie the key to recognizing copied objects. I can envision a system, for instance, where each object would contain a script capable of answering a “challenge” from outside and responding with a message indicating that the item was the genuine article. A counterfeit object would not contain the script (assuming the script itself could not be copied by other means) and hence would not respond to the challenge, marking it as a fake. There remain many practical details to be resolved here (not least of which is the communication method to use for the challenge/response…having the object listening on a channel at all times for the challenge would cause many people to start screaming “LAG!”), but a scheme like this could provide at least some method of detecting unauthorized copies and act as a stopgap until LL can beef up their own means for doing so.

In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist recognized that the coming of the Snow Crash digital virus represented a need for a fundamental shift in the design of the Metaverse, with more emphasis on security. We may face a similar moment here in the history of our own Metaverse. But, just as the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the ones for “danger” and “opportunity,” so too does the CopyBot crisis represent both a danger and an opportunity…one which I hope LL, the libSL developers, and others will rise up to the challenge of. In the meantime, stay the course. Content creators, keep watch for anyone trying to use CopyBot to steal your creations, and give some thought to technical measures whereby such may be detected. Residents, pledge yourselves to refrain from violation of copyright, and urge your peers to do likewise. And keep your eyes on LL and the libSL developers…encourage them to do the right thing.

“These things pass. The trick is to live through them.” – Lazarus Long, Time Enough For Love, Robert A. Heinlein

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Filed under Business, Current Events, Griefers, Technical

Event Management: Hit and Miss

Interior, Gin RummyOne of the major challenges we face in running the Gin Rummy is the planning and scheduling of events. Events, of course, draw in customers, which hopefully draws in money, which is decidedly a Good Thing. 🙂

We normally hold one event per night, except on Wednesdays (because those are update days and you never know what shape the Grid is going to be in that night); larger clubs run events more frequently. And each event has a theme, asking people to dress in a certain fashion, with the winners (one man, one woman) taking home L$250, or sometimes more.

The actual execution of the event goes off pretty smoothly for us, given that we have Contest Wizard boards to manage the contest entries and voting in a completely fair fashion. It’s the planning that gets to me sometimes.

The choice of theme is critical to whether an event succeeds or fails. Some themes resonate better with people than others. Last Sunday, we held a formal event that had a very good turnout; the following day, an “Ears & Tails” event fell pretty much flat. The day after that, a “Rock & Roll” event started slow, but brought in quite a few people by the end of the event. (Misty, one of our managers, came up with the “Ears & Tails” event. I assured her that I’ve had my share of dud event ideas, too, such as my infamous “Corporate Motherf***er” event rewarding the best business suits.)

Events begin life on the”event calendar” page of our “intranet” site, where one of the managers or owners will pick a theme for a date and write a blurb that will later be posted to the Second Life Events page. (We have another page of “suggested theme ideas.”) Appropriate staffing for the event must be scheduled; the Gin Rummy generally needs an event host, a DJ, one or two dancers, and a bartender to pull off an event. Then, once a schedule has been finalized and set, I will post the event description and particulars to the SL Events page. (I usually post several of these at once.) Then, when the day comes, we get everyone in place at the same time, set up the Contest Wizards, get the DJ spinning and hooked into the club’s music system, make sure the tip jars are ready, turn on the Raffle Ball and the Money Sploder, and wait for the customers…

Often times, the best events occur when the DJ can tailor a music program to the event. I love spinning for 70’s disco parties and 80’s parties, for instance, and, for other events, I will often throw in some clever music choices. For instance, when we did a “Switch” event (men dress as women and vice-versa), I DJ’d the event (in a lovely pink flexi ball gown I borrowed from my friend Fiona 🙂 ) and threw in some appropriate music choices, such as “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” “Man! I Feel Like A Woman,” “Lola,” and Cyndi Lauper’s remix “Hey Now (Girls Just Want To Have Fun),” which was used in the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. Yes, some of the staff groaned a bit, but I had fun with it.

Would-be club owners, take heed: By your events you’ll be known. Make ’em good ones.

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More People…And More Issues

Second Life has now broken the 15,000 peak-concurrent-user mark, as reported by Shockwave and confirmed by Resident statistician* Tateru (in comments). According to things I heard from Sumar Morgan and others at The Shelter in Exile, 16,000 has, in fact, been broken as well. (As I heard that from them, I pulled up the Web site myself, to see just over 15,000 logged in…15,074, as I recall.)

This figure is probably a more important one than the “one million registered users” figure that I’ve written about previously. After all, one million users, not logged in, merely take up space in the databases. Fifteen thousand users, logged in all at once, represent load on the network connections between LL and the rest of the Internet, load on the sim servers that have to pump visual information back to those users while at the same time keeping track of all their actions to update the state of the world (in as close to real time as can be managed), load on the database servers and asset servers that have to keep track of every object they pick up or rez and every Linden Dollar they spend or receive, load on the network interconnecting all those servers as people move about and teleport from place to place…oh, the list goes on.

If you think there’s some correlation between the high user load and the appearance of more problems with lag, dropped packets, database server glitches that result in inventory strangeness or sudden teleport failures, and so forth…it’s probably not just a coincidence.

As I have remarked elsewhere, not just on Evans Avenue Exit but on other sites, as well as in-world (including in earshot of Teeple Linden, when he dropped into The Shelter in Exile momentarily), Second Life is perhaps the single most complex software system I have ever seen or used. Yes, even more complicated than, say, Windows Vista. 🙂 With SL, you’re dealing with distributed processing on a vast scale–something I can speak on with some authority, as I work for a company selling supercomputing cluster systems. Even the largest clusters we’ve ever shipped, though, pale in comparison to the amount of hardware required to keep the Grid functional. (The servers for Anshe Chung’s land holdings alone, for instance, would fill at least three and possibly four standard racks.) Program coding on that scale is decidedly a “nontrivial” problem; even in the more mundane cluster-computing field, whole projects and commercial products have sprung up to deal with the complexity of writing and running massively-parallel programs. SL is so specialized, though, it’s hard to know whether any of that would help it (or, indeed, if LL may already have made use of such tools).

How do you build a world on this scale? Of course, SL didn’t start out at this scale; it started very small, and then, like Topsy, “just growed.” At a certain point, the software underlying SL has to be not so much “designed” as “evolved”…and sometimes, you get so involved in fighting fires, it’s difficult to make forward progress. Yet forward progress is being made; I look at SL as it was when I first started, and, even in six months or so, things have pushed ahead quite a bit.

If we are to automatically assign the blame to LL when things go wrong, they at least deserve the credit for things that go right…and sometimes, when I look at SL, I am reminded of the old saying, “The most amazing thing about a waltzing bear is not how gracefully it waltzes, but that it waltzes at all.” In the meantime, we would do well to learn patience. (Cue Ed Gruberman: “Yeah, yeah, patience, how long will that take?”)

UPDATE: Tateru comes through with some pretty pictures of the concurrent user load. As you can see, we didn’t actually break 16,000, but we came damn close. And pretty much never is the load under 6,000, except when the grid is down for maintenance. I don’t know about you, but even 6,000 simultaneous users is way more than any software I’ve ever written has had…
* – Among her many other roles. Sometimes it’s easy to believe in a small army of Taterus…

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Filed under Philosophy, Technical

Encounter with Another Blogger

View of Osprey Therian's art galleryOsprey Therian was kind enough to drop by the Gin Rummy this evening, probably encouraged by tonight’s DJ, Jensel Karlfeldt.  As I’ve seen her blog on WorldofSL before, I’ve now added her to the ever-growing list of elite bloggers that is the Evans Avenue Exit blogroll.

Before writing this entry, I spent some time over at her store, her art gallery, and some of the locations in her Picks.  One important thing I noticed: She likes cats.  Anyone who likes cats must have something good going for them.   (I say this as one whose lap is frequently occupied by a cat during my SL sessions.)  Her shop is full of some good period outfits, and I’ll certainly drop by there when the GR decides to run a medieval event, which will probably happen sooner or later.  As for her link title…I name her exactly as she names herself, “The Elven Artisan.”

Besides all of the above, she’s cracked the two-year mark in SL…which, I’m certain, means she has a few good things to say about the state of the world here and there.  Make sure and check it out…

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