Monthly Archives: March 2007

Inside the Engine Room

Information Week has a fascinating article out today on the data centers and infrastructure behind the SL Grid. Some interesting points from the article:

  • The present theoretical maximum concurrency of the Grid is 100,000 users. Of course, we start running into trouble long before we hit that mark, as I’m sure you’re all too aware…
  • The article states that users who buy a sim get their own server. I think that’s mistaken; I had always understood that each sim was run on its own CPU core (meaning a typical dual-processor dual-core server could support 4 sims).
  • LL is “undecided” as to whether they will open-source the server code. Of course, they may not have to; one Slashdot commenter pointed out the great strides being made by the OpenSim project. Hmm…think one of our customers would let me borrow a cluster to set up a mini-Grid? 🙂
  • The database currently holds 34 terabytes of user-created content, and 2/3 of users are actively creating content, a sharp contrast to most other services, where the proportion of readers to creators is much higher.
  • The Dallas facility went live in December. Sims in close proximity to one another in Grid space tend to “live” at the same facility in real-world space. No word if there will be any other datacenters set up anytime soon.
  • The rollout of the Mono-based LSL will happen in the second quarter of 2007. Later will come means of using other CLI-based languages to do SL scripting, such as C# and Visual Basic.
  • LL is taking measures to minimize congestion on the Grid, including possibly limiting logins to Premium accounts at certain times (which Danielle doesn’t like) and moving more services in SL to be Web-accessible. Another upcoming tool is something that will allow Residents to see how much system resources they’re using (and how much lag they’re creating). Finally, some hope for the blingtards?

Sadly, there were no pictures accompanying the article; those of you looking for datacenter pr0n will have to look elsewhere. 🙂 But it’s still worth your time. You might also check out the Slashdot thread inspired by the article.

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Thoughts On “Thoughts On Ageplay” And The Controversy

You see them sometimes in Second Life: avatars that look like children. Which, in and of itself, is not particularly noteworthy; in a world where everyone can choose to look any way they wish, from supermodel-esque bombshell to bare-chested tough guy to anthropomorphic animal, kid-size avatars probably don’t even cause the Weird-O-Meter to twitch. Often, these avatars are actually role-playing as children…and sometimes, not all that play is “innocent.” For some, this represents a needed safety valve in society; for others, it represents a clear and present danger.

All these practices are sometimes grouped under the rubric of “ageplay,” i.e., role-playing your avatar as an “age” markedly different from your true age. Many people, however, see the term used as solely referring to sexual forms of this play. In a recent post for Second Life Insider, Tateru Nino (the Tireless 🙂 ) attempts to reclaim that term from the sexual ghetto into which it has fallen, pointing out many of the positive, even theraputic, aspects of role-playing as a child. I’ve no doubt her intentions are good here, and, in fact, I agree with much of what she has to say, having seen a few of these ageplayers myself, including one girl who, in another (fully adult!) “guise,” worked as a dancer at the Gin Rummy. (That is, until her inventory was eaten by the asset server and LL seemed powerless to do anything about it. But that’s another story.) But I have my doubts that one of these posts, or even ten or a hundred, can permanently change the perception of “ageplay” in the minds of the reading public.

She did, however, appear to lightly gloss over the notion of sexual ageplay at the end of this piece, which prompted a scathing rebuttal from (as one might have guessed) Prokofy Neva. Unfortunately, Prokofy marred this rebuttal by attributing Tateru’s seeming dismissal of the issue of sexual ageplay to her (publically-documented) Asperger’s syndrome. This was not only, in my view, “hitting below the belt,” it was also unnecessary, as he had an excellent point even without using that argument.

So what, then, is the Reasonable Avatar supposed to think? I posted my own comment to Tateru’s piece; this post represents an elaboration of my own thinking in this matter.

First of all, I would hope that everyone reading this piece would agree: The sexual abuse of children in real life is absolutely evil and wrong, beyond any possible hope of redemption. The people who engage in this behavior prey on the weakest among us, taking advantage of their trust and violating their minds as much as they violate their bodies. Predators such as this are incapable of being completely cured, and civilized society has gradually come to recognize this, with the adoption of various notification laws such as “Megan’s Law.” In my perfect society, the sentence for such actions would be death, preferably a very painful one.

In Second Life, of course, no actual children are harmed, as everyone on the Grid is supposed to be of legal age. (Except that LL has muddied the waters considerably in this respect by doing away with account verification–which makes this issue all the more pressing.) But the question is: Does engaging in sexual ageplay in SL make it less likely that a person will engage in pedophilia in RL, or more? I’ve no doubt you could find the issue argued both ways, and I myself am uncertain. But when I reframe the question as, “Is the potential benefit worth the potential risk?” I am less uncertain; my answer is, “No, it is not.”

Is such behavior in SL legal? Certain people in the Netherlands (as Prokofy points out) don’t think so, while some interpretations of certain U.S. Supreme Court decisions could lead one to conclude that there’s no law against it in the U.S. (or rather, that any that were passed were struck down as unconstitutional). But does it have to be illegal to be wrong? Consider this thought by noted conservative blogger Mrs. du Toit:

The rules of civility, ethics, and morality exist regardless if they are written into law or not. But people will demand they be written into law if people refuse to comply willingly, allowing some discretion, latitude, and forgiveness in the personal sphere, where none will exist in the sphere of laws.

A society that condones, excuses, or lauds irresponsibility, immorality, and unethical behavior is doomed to the Jack Booted Thug.

If you demand that all indiscretions must rise to the level of illegal to be punished or challenged, you will get your wish.

Very well, then. If sexual ageplay in SL is to be considered wrong, then what shall we, as a community, do about it? One answer might be for people to make a declaration: “I will not engage in child sex play in Second Life, nor will I associate or do business with those that do.” (This is indirectly derived from the honor code at the U.S. military academies: “I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those among us who do.”) I would certainly not advocate direct action against sexual ageplayers; we’ve seen all too often how even righteous defense of one’s own property can turn into allegations of griefing sworn against the victim by the griefer–and then upheld by LL. Rather, those that stand against this practice should simply employ their own freedom of association and choose not to associate with those that practice it. After all, LL has told us that we are free to ban others from our property, for any reason or none, and given us the tools to do so. If enough known sexual ageplayers start running into ban-lines, perhaps the message will be clear.

There are those who would call this “intolerance.” To them I say: If the word “intolerance” can be stretched to cover your own free choices as to who you will and will not associate with, then it has been watered down to the point where it no longer has any meaning and can be used to mean anything those in power say it means–and that way lies tyranny. Besides, the one thing that the soi-disant philosophy of “tolerance” is absolutely intolerant of is the notion that there are absolute moral standards, things forever beyond the pale for civilized human beings. Give that up, and you lose any notion of a “moral compass” by which to judge your own actions and those of others–and that way lies anarchy.

Whatever we, as a community, decide to do about the issue of sexual ageplay, whether it be adopting the solution I have outlined or another, we had best do it soon, as forces in RL politics are already gathering to take the decision out of our hands by enshrining it in law. And if that happens, as Mrs. du Toit suggests, we won’t like the results.

UPDATE: A fresh post by Tateru on Second Life Insider this morning brings two items of note to the discussion. First, she “find[s] the whole notion of the depiction of any sexual activity with minors to be personally upsetting,” which I was 99.999% sure of in any event, but it’s nice to have confirmation. Since, as she says, “Most of you already know that,” she didn’t feel a need to mention it in the original post. It might have been nice to include that bit of context in there, though, as lots of people may read SLI who don’t know Tat well enough to have heard her opinion personally (and may not yet be in SL at all, for that matter).

Second and more important, LL is cracking down on depictions of sexual activity involving minors. The text of a notecard being circulated to certain residents is as follows:

Dear Second Life Resident:

Linden Lab would like to inform you that your land or business is possibly not in compliance with Second Life’s Community Standards. The depiction of sexual activity involving minors may violate real-world laws in some areas, and the Second Life community as a whole has made it clear that it views such behavior to be broadly offensive. Linden Lab chooses not to allow the advertising or promotion of age play or related activities in any public forum — including in-world textures, classified ads, the Second Life forums, or parcel descriptions.

Advertisements, promotions, or descriptions of such activities must be removed to avoid account sanctions. Any account asserting an age that does not meet Second Life’s minimum age of eligibility will be closed.

Linden Lab

Naturally, I applaud LL’s efforts in this regard, but I would encourage Residents to keep an eye out for this kind of behavior as well, perhaps adopting the approach I outlined above. If the community, including LL, can be seen to be effectively policing itself for this kind of behavior, that might put the kibosh on the RL lawmakers’ attempts to impose control from outside.

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Voices from the Outer World: Further Thoughts

No, it’s apparent voice will not be a universally-loved addition to Second Life. Cala brings up a point which I had not considered, but really should have:

In the CNet article about the voice feature, my friend Noche, editor of Pixel Pulse magazine, “is concerned that some people are not ready to divulge their real-life gender”- and that is very much the truth. The impacts to outing ourselves are massive, and the constant feeling of rejection from a non-understanding public eventually wears the most positive of us down.

For many of us – the TGs in Second Life – it really does mean an end to an era, where we can truly immerse ourselves in our chosen gender expression, and it feels natural and our entire avatar *is* our entire expression of ourselves in this new world. Now if we choose not to participate in voice, we are cutting ourselves off from communication, and we’ll be percieved as hiding something (again), and the shame can settle back in – and with it the depression, and with the depression…

Of course, I mostly had in mind the regular (and presumably straight, but perhaps not) guys who use female avatars in SL…but this is an issue of a totally different nature. It is certainly plausible, in hindsight, that people with various forms of gender-identity issues should use SL to visualize themselves as the “correct” gender from their mental point of view…and that voice, by bringing an element of the physical (and “wrong”) in, would get in the way of that. And, if it becomes more of an “expectation” of people in-world, it could prove devastating to those whose voice doesn’t “match” their avatar.

(Blame “carpal tunnel vision” on my part. Readers of this blog know that I crafted my avatar’s appearance to resemble my own in RL, minus certain aspects, and anyone who’s heard me DJ at the Gin Rummy or the Black Diamond knows what I sound like in RL. The same goes for Danielle, Chelle, and several others I know, too. I sometimes forget that not everyone in SL is like that.)

And even Triste is uncertain that voice will help out his Bible studies as much as I thought it would:

I think about the way the Bible studies are currently being done via audio and via conference call. I have to set the conference call to “lecture” mode (where all lines are muted save the moderator) in order to avoid distraction caused by noise or other activity on other lines that are connected to the call. To have background like that, especially when it’s all being recorded for a podcast later, makes it necessary to take that step of making the sessions “one way.”

Now, having heard some of the pros and cons, this still begs the question: Voice is coming. What do we intend to do about it?

At the moment, all of our land holdings (the Evans Family Compound in Aphrodisia, Don’t Panic! Designs in South Sunset, and the Gin Rummy in Joie) are on islands, which, according to LL, will not be automatically upgraded to voice unless the owners decide to do so, which may involve an additional fee (and if it does, I wonder if that will keep some island owners from adopting voice). Only if they decide to allow it will the decision be put in our hands. But, if they do, what then?

Well, if we shut down DPD, as Danielle is thinking of doing, the question becomes moot there. At the house, I guess we’d allow it, for our own convenience and the convenience of guests who choose to employ it. But what about the Gin Rummy?

I think I would probably choose to allow it there, too, but with some provisos. I would insist, for one thing, that our hosts continue to do business in “text mode,” for the benefit of guests who don’t have voice capability. (And it might not be due to being transgendered, either…they might be hearing-impaired, or might simply not have a decent headset for their computer. The actual reason is not critical.) And, naturally, we would treat voice disruption just like any other form of disruption (like gesture-spamming or excessive particle effects, for instance). And people that hassle other people for not communicating in voice, when it’s clear that they can’t or don’t want to, would be facing the business end of the Banhammer. As for our employees…if we hire someone that can’t or won’t use voice, we will respect their right to not do so, just as we don’t expect everyone to have and use Skype now. It shouldn’t be a requirement for working at the GR…heck, we’ve had DJs in the past who haven’t spoken on-air, or not much, and they did fine.

I do think built-in voice will be good for myself and Danielle in particular, simply due to the fact that we already make use of it, and the convenience of not having to use an external client for voice will be a net win. But we can’t speak for everyone, and it would seem that voice is not the universal benefit that LL would claim it is.

UPDATE: In comments,  Danielle says “no voice at the GR.”  That would appear to be that, then, because her word is law there, as far as I’m concerned.  It does mean that we might be considered more “transgender friendly,” perhaps…

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A Manner of Speaking

So, voice is coming to Second Life. But is that a good thing or a bad thing?

For me, perhaps, it’ll just be “business as usual.” Danielle and I are routinely linked via Skype these days while in-world, and even sometimes while one of us is not in-world (such as last night, when I was busy with a large DVD-burning project for most of the evening). We find it highly convenient, allowing us to interact faster, especially on cooperative building projects, where it’s faster for us to speak than type in collaboration. (“OK, you can go align the wall on that side.” “This one over here?” “Yes.”) It also gives us a “back channel” of communication even when we’re not in the same place in-world, which can be useful in our various managerial, DJing, and other activities. Sometimes, we use Skype’s conferencing feature to add similarly-equipped friends to our conversation. This is often useful and occasionally hilarious.

The modes of communication to be supported by SL’s voice chat implementation will include similar capabilities (2-way private communications and multi-way conferencing), but will also include an in-world mode where avatars on “voice-enabled land” (whatever that means) will hear each other with spatially-correct audio (e.g., avatars on your left will sound like they’re on your left, and distant avatars will sound more faint than ones close by). The actual voice processing will occur on servers other than the sim servers, so it shouldn’t contribute to server-side lag; as for client-side lag, it should be no harder on a client system than running Skype alongside SL, and likely less so.

The question is, is this too big a break in the “fourth wall” of SL, detracting too much from an immersive experience? The upstanding inventrix, Ms. Ordinal Malaprop, has neatly summarized many of the objections to built-in voice, such as:

  • It would ruin immersion to have voices that were inappropriate for an avatar’s appearance. Not too big a concern for me or Danielle, but all those guys playing as female avatars must be quaking in their boots (or stiletto heels, as appropriate 🙂 ).
  • “People are idiots.” Having previously been an Xbox Live user, where voice is part of the experience, I can vouch for this…
  • It will make group discussions more complicated, and too easy for someone to literally “shout down” others.
  • Busy areas would be a nightmare. I think of the Gin Rummy with a packed house and voice chat running, and I can understand this.
  • Voice spamming might become a problem.
  • Non-native English speakers will have a harder time, because of the problem of accents, and also because there’s no Babbler for voice. (Well, there’s kind of no Babbler for text right now, either…Google Translate, the back-end engine Babbler uses, seems to be groaning a bit under the strain. Max Case, Babbler’s inventor, is aware of the problem and is trying to find workarounds.) This would be something of a concern at the GR, too, as we seem to have a certain degree of popularity among Brazilians at the moment.
  • It’s harder to log voice chat; you’d have to be making a recording, you couldn’t just copy and paste the logs. And there’s also no easy way to grep voice chat logs for specific keywords or phrases.

(This just glosses the surface; her post on the subject is well worth your time to read. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Many of these objections could be leveled against the use of Skype with SL, too…and I’ve certainly dealt with at least one idiot on Skype. Yet, for every person like Ms. Malaprop that finds the idea of built-in voice an annoyance at best, there’ll probably be one who will see it as a Godsend. The Reverend Triste Bertrand, for instance, will probably find it extremely useful for running his weekly Bible study. Language classes in SL will also benefit from the ability to pipe in the voices of native speakers without the use of external software. And certainly, other online worlds, such as There, seem to have integrated the use of voice successfully. For myself, I’m interested to see whether the SL solution is better or worse than the Skype-based system Danielle and I use now. (I haven’t yet tried to sign up for the beta; for all I know, it may be too late to do so. Danielle has, though.) We may continue to use it in much the same way we use Skype now, and just ignore the other modes if they get too out of hand.

Of course, your mileage may vary. Ms. Malaprop, for instance, probably won’t bother with the voice support. I would remind everyone not to judge others by what form of communication they will or won’t accept; the polite thing to do is to simply use the mode of communication that best suits both you and the person you’re speaking to. (This is, incidentally, why I start writing Victorian prose in comments over on An Engine Fit For My Proceeding; it fits the setting and the person to whom I’m addressing my comments. It’s also why I try to dress properly before TP’ing over to any location on Caledon.) “Manners matter,” in the words of Queen Clarice of Genovia, and not just in Caledon, either.

Of greater concern to other people, such as Alexander Lapointe, is that LL seems to have its priorities inverted:

What really bugs me about this is the fact that Linden Lab is doing this now instead of pushing all of their efforts into making the grid more stable. […] come on LL, could you please focus on making the growing grid a little more stable first? Please?

I don’t know as I see the two as being mutually exclusive. We already know that the voice service will run through servers that are not part of the SL Grid proper; it shouldn’t have any more of an impact on server stability than, say, the ability to attach music stream URLs to a parcel (which is similar in some respects, and is a capability used daily by DJs and musicians across the Grid without incident–indeed, it’s sometimes the most reliable aspect of an event). The major growing pains for SL seem to involve scalability of the architecture as concurrent users increase, and as they move to hosting in multiple data centers…and these would be issues with or without added voice. And trying to throw every single engineer LL has onto those problems would probably be the sort of situation I refer to as a “fustercluck”; Brooks’ Law dictates that you’ll never get as much out of that kind of radical focus as you expect you will. The people that are working on Grid stability are no doubt continuing to do so; I doubt that the voice addition requires the attentions of more than one or two engineers.

Anyway, ready or not, voice is coming. I will be watching developments in this area with interest…but tempered by a dose of healthy skepticism.

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