Monday, June 15, 2009

Alternative to Badman review

Cross posting to all my blogs. I am trying to organise an alternative report to the Badman review. I am co-ordinating that effort through the new ning account for UK free unschoolers.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Best Freebies in SL: animations

It's been a while since I blogged about the best freebies in or for SL. This morning I visited Animazoo, which is an animation company in world, and a maker of motion capture suits in the real world.

Animazoo has a wide variety of dances and moves, which look to be a lot more SL-friendly in general than Sinewave (many of their anims are very fast and look odd in SL, athough some Sinewave anims are great). They have quite a few free, no-transfer, animations, including dances. They're definitely worth checking out.

There's also a weblink to free resources on the net for animations, including a link to the real ife Animazoo page where there are more free animations, in the bvh format which can be uploaded to SL.

The free tool outside SL which can be used to generate animations is avimator or Qavimator, both of which can be downloaded here.

You'll find the animation forum on the SL forums useful while it is still there....

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

There and back again

Well... where to start? I was supposed to go to the opening event for the polyclinic I have been working with over the last few months on a training environment in Second Life. It's been planned for ages. When the tube strike in London was announced yesterday I thought that would be the end of my plan to attend the event, but when I spoke to one of the people I have been working with this morning, he asked if there wasn't any way of getting in to the event. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I thought it was possible, and so decided that instead of assuming it wasn't possible to do it, I'd try to see if I could get there.

I actually had an appointment tomorrow too, and so it seemed like a good test to see if the travel conditions were possible or not. I arrived at West Ruisip station around 12.08 and was surprised to find there was a fifty minute wait for a train. Stupidly I had assumed they might put on more trains, but I hadn't checked the timetable (obviously). I used the time well though: I watched Seth Godin and Ray Kurzweil on Ted Talks. Very instructive and thought-provoking they were too.

There were a few people there who had traveled from Uxbridge to get the mainline to London - most without any idea how they would make their onward journey. I began to worry that the train, when it arrived, would be like the Tokyo underground, with more and more people arriving at the station. It was crowded but there were seats.

I had thought about taking the bus from Marylebone, but the buses were all full and I could see the main road was nose-to-tail traffic, so I decided to get a cab. When I saw how gridlocked London roads were it didn't seem like quite such a good idea, but at least the cab was able to take shortcuts to try to avoid the worst of the traffic, something which buses (if you could get on them) couldn't do. I grabbed fellow passenger who was trying to get a bus to Islington to share the cab.

I got to the Health Centre, and was in time to be introduced to Alan Bennett, who was doing the official opening. I explained that I was making a virtual training environment and Roy MacGregor, who is one of the doctors working on the project indicated the video I had spent the weekend putting together in SL.

I didn't want to seem like an effusive fan and so didn't mention that I am familiar with his work and love it. It was only afterwards that I realised that really, unless you have time to get to know a celebrity, probably that is the only thing that one can say that would be interesting to someone in the public eye, but the moment had passed.

He told me that the camera crew who were setting up were following him around for a profile they are doing on him, but unfortunately they weren't filming at the moment I was talking to him, and he moved on to other people before they were. There were various journalists and photographers in the crowd, one of whom was from the PCT as this story and photograph was on the website by the time I got home.

I took a variety of poor pictures on my phone. Unfortunately, though I was in a good position for the speeches, the group moved to the cake table for the cutting of the cake ceremony which meant I was some way away through a crowd. If you want to see good pictures of the building, which has already won awards and is up for more, you can see them here.

Both Roy and Alan Benett made a speech on the opening of the Kentish Town Heath Centre, which I thought was the first purpose-built polyclinic in the country... but maybe not, as I didn't hear them actually say this in the speeches. It was clear that the project to make a community-based polyclinic in Kentish Town was one which had been achieved mostly by the inspiration and energy of Roy... it really does take someone exceptional to move this sort of project into reality.

Roy Macgregor thanked all the people who had played a part in the project to build, and had to swallow hard and give himself a slap on the face when his voice cracked a couple of times on thanking his family for their part in supporting him, and of the people it was al for - the patients. He then handed over to Alan Bennett who made a wonderful speech paying tribute to Roy, as the instigator, and main motivator of the project, and to the National Health Service. He mentioned in his speech that the US health industry were using examples from the NHS as evidence that public health does not work, but this health centre is a wonderful example of how well it can work when it works well.

And it is. I have been working with doctors from the practice over the past few months and I have been amazed by how dynamic and caring the group of doctors are, and what a high standard of service and care they offer to their patients. Now that they are housed in the new purpose-built centre, they are providing a community resource which, as Alan Bennett noted, is a community in itself.

I met an interesting man during the ceremony and the cake and fruit juice reception which took place after the speeches, who told me that he was a psychotherapist originally from New York, working with patients with HIV/AIDs. I learned from him that more people tested positive for HIV in the UK last year than in all the previous years put together, and the alarming news that roughly half the people who are positive, don't know they are infected.

It struck me that there has been very little publicity about HIV/AIDs recently. The therapist's view was that all the money in HIV/AIDs had gone to fund the combined drugs therapy for people with the infection, and very little into education or publicity. His view was that the scary tombstone adverts of the 1980s ought to have be continued (as similar ones were in America). I don't know about this. In the past, the pattern of infection in the UK was quite different from the US. I think that probably because they had blood stock infected with HIV, the spread in the US seemed to cover the whole of the population more or less from the start.

In the UK, notwithstanding the dire warnings and general advertising that went on at the beginning, the infection remained in the gay community and intravenous drugs users, along with immigrants from African nations, for some time. It looks as though that profile has gradually changed, however, and we haven't been made aware of it.

We were given canvas bags from Camden PCT, with a number of free gifts within. A bizarre collection which included a stress ball (to help with giving up smoking) and a pen, a bowel cancer screening kit and pen (!), and a sheaf of leaflets. I dunno about these. I'm not sure what the role of Camden-PCT-promoting canvas bags is. People can't generally be sold a PCT : they are stuck with whichever one is local to them.

Having had contact with Camden PCT in various ways over the last year, not least my son's surgery at UCH over New Year, and the Kentish Town Health Centre, I do not need persuading that they are getting some things so right that they ought to be a model for other PCTs to follow. But a canvas bag freebie is neither here nor there in that judgement. I don't know why they think it is a worthwhile investment for them.

I left at about 3.15 pm, and had a long and tedious journey which I shall gloss over for your sake. It involved a walk, a bus, a walk from Kings Cross to Warren Street, a realisation that with all buses full and blisters on my feet I wasn't going to get to Paddington without a taxi, a taxi, a mainline train, another bus and another walk. A journey which would normally last about an hour and ten minutes on a good day took over three hours. In all I spent about six hours travelling and £40 on taxis, buses and cabs. It was worth it to shake hands with Alan Bennett, and to be part of the celebration of the new centre.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Gone Viral

It's not often that you see things happening before your eyes... a few weeks ago Susan Boyle's first performance on Britain's got talent seemed to go viral within hours... I knew something was up when I was passed the same URL about five or six times in Second Life (TM) in the space of a couple of hours. That 'ardly ever 'appens.

Today, after I'd worked my socks off to get something done and found that due to a technical fault, it was only half done... I wasn't feeling very good. Mainly because the technical fault was mine... instead of recording film in SL, carefuly set up, rehearsed and then filmed, I found that I had been filming when I thought I wasn't and not filming when I thought I was. Erk!

So I moseyed on over to BoingBoing and found the wonderful Lisztomania mash-up by Avoidantconsumer. You can see that this film, a mash-up of Brat Pack video footage and the track from Phoenix, is just genius. It mixes a catchy song with all the toe-tapping bits, and even seems to fix a wrong by letting the boy-next-door best friend get the girl. You don't have to waste too much time looking at the official video to realise that this is miles, miles, miles better.

It incorporates footage from bratpack films, including Mannequin... one of the worst films in the world. In fact I think this mash-up is about the most artistic thing that has ever been associated with that one.

As one of the commenters said on the youtube video comment thread, it makes you want to dance... and makes you feel 15 again. It did me. It had more than 165 thousand views when I watched it, and is accruing more as we speak I have no doubt. People will be blogging and emailing and sending the link, because it is THAT good. Athough there was an indication that the use of the band's song was an infringement, they have put it up on their myspace, and seem OK with it. I should think so... it's going to make their name known all over the world.

To make it even more wonderful, there is a response video from a group of Brooklyn oh God... what do I call them not to sound like Methusalah? Youngsters sounds like I'm granny...young people...argh everything sounds either patronising or annoyingly outdated... group of Brooklyn amateurs have made an original video based on the Bratpack mash-up from Avoidantconsumer. It's great. The dancers may not have the panache of the professionals, but they make up for that with charm. Again, the number of views is rising rapidly... and when you look at the number of views the other videos on the channel have previously attained, you can see that some internet magic is at work. Or it could be that the music is just really memorable, catchy and dancable. One of the girls in this video is particularly memorable.

I have no idea how many views there will be by tomorrow or next week... but they've gone viral, for sure, and they're taking the band's music with them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Kingdom of Sand

In my alt avatar I am working on a set of good links to builds around Second Life. It's a tremendously difficult thing to do, because I don't want to link people to things which would be inappropriate, dens of iniquity or outrageous commerce.

It's hard to know where to draw the line, because many of the best builds in SL do have a commercial connection, whether it is malls and shops incorporated as part of the build, or a company connection.

In the case of the Kindgom of Sand, which is a role-playing game, the sexual side of the game may offend people even while they are admiring the build itself. I am indebted to the blog "my so-called Second Life" for the slurl to this build in Purgatorio.

The build is quite simply brilliant... really well textured and made. It is a fantasy Arabian city carved out of the desert, with turrets and minarets, docks, bedouin camps and dunes. The terraforming and texturing of the sand has been done extremely well, so well that it puts many sims to shame.

They have used a set of textures over and over again within the build, but with such imaginative use of the variety of shapes and architecture that it never feels samey at all. I didn't gather much about the game except that it seems to be a master/slave fantasy roleplaying game in which the men are the masters and the women the slaves... although there was a male in a slave cage when I visited, so perhaps it is more varied than that.

Slaves seem to spend a lot of time running away, and masters capture them. For a group of consenting adults I think it looks a lot of fun, but experience in SL has led me to wonder whether the macho men are actually driven by 15 year olds in fact... I think I would only play this sort of game with someone I knew, and even then....

Exploring the sim with an explorer tag on makes one immune to capture and enslavement, and so I walked about taking photographs and observing the sim acivities. It was very popular - so popular that when I returned with a friend to show her the build, I could barely walk... we were pacing on the spot in many places.

I admire the way that texturing has been used, and the attention to detail in the way that textures have been used... there is an accomplishment in composition and construction which is very rarely seen in SL, where the builder has worked within the constraints to make something that really works well. This is an object lesson in building a place that is interesting to explore, well textured, both realistic and a fantasy in one build. It is a great shame that the inclusion of the game may put people off visiting it, because it is one of the wonders of SL, and I am glad to have seen it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Microsoft's Project Natal

Watched the video on the BBC website of the reveal on Project Natal, which enables players to interact with a character on screen in a very natural way. The film shows a woman interacting with a boy character "Milo" on screen. In the course of the short film, she picks up some goggles, dabbles in the stream and passes a sketch of a fish over to Milo.

It's an impressive glimpse into the future possibiities, although it made me wonder just how interesting interacting with a robot boy, dabbling the hands in virtual water and sketching fish actually is, compared with talking to a real person, dabbling in real water etc - and I speak as someone passionately devoted to virtual worlds. One of the best things about Second Life is the fact that the people you meet are real people with real lives and real emotions - but more than that - real experience and a real history. For a virtual character to be at all interesting they need some backstory and something to entice you to be interested in them. If the boy had been from the 15th century, or the 30th or from a lost tribe or far-off planet... it would have been just as exciting, but more interesting.

I also worry a great deal about the future of our children, interacting with characters who appear to be normal chidren but are not. I believe that human beings are designed to model themselves on the people they interact with. Our psychology is going to take some time to catch up with a world in which some of the people we interact with are not real people, but robots. In fact it may never do so... it is said that the reason we find it so easy to immerse in virtual worlds is a good evolutionary tactic: for hundreds of thousands of years it has been essential to assume that anything we see happening to us IS real. If you take two minutes to decide whether that spear winging its way to your head is real or not... you're dead. So your brain assumes it is real and reacts accordingly.

This is the reason I felt the same vertigo crossing a virtual chasm as I would crossing a real one... and why it will be easier and easier as the technology develops to regard the Natal's Milo as a real boy. It seems to me probable though, that this boy will adhere to a certain set of rules about ethics and morality, which real boys tend not to do.

The most exciting uses must be educational for these things, and yet that always seems to take a back seat to entertainment. I think that play is an important thing for children and adults, and that we should encourage people to be playing as much as possible... what I would love would be the chance to make games and play which are truly educational and inspirational... real education and not the ersatz one which schools dole out in ever-smaller chunks to an enforced audience.

We need to be careful though. My experience with home educated children and my own has proved to me that the most important thing is the interaction between a loving adult and the children, and how responsive that person is to the child. If television has become the default nanny for a lot of children, then an interactive boy may be an improvement on that. However, neither the television, nor the astonishing Milo, should ever be a replacement for a loving and engaged adult, I think. It is too obvious to me that this could easily be the case, and very quickly, if we are not alert to the seductive power of immersion. Maybe the introduction of other real-life attribute might solve the problem: sulking, telling tales, getting grumpy? Otherwise Milo may quickly become the preferred friend of all children, everywhere.