Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Light Relief

Recently I have been working very hard on a project, and so I have appreciated some breaks and some laughs which I have found through other people's posts on Facebook, or through my children, or just random stumbleuponing. I recently realised that there are some people's sites I go back to again and again.

Dan and Dan films are amazing. There's the technical brilliance of making the twin thing work in a convincing way, and then the intelligence of the songs and banter... I think he deserves a show or his own, not just 15 minutes of fame on Genius.

I was only recently introduced to Ray William Johnson's twice-weekly postings of viral videos. Initially I found him a bit irritating, but he grows on you, even though he can be a bit crude at times, his comments and graffiti on occasional videos does make them funnier. This is my favourite... I don't know why the lamb is funny, but it makes me laugh every time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Go to the top of the class...or is that the bottom?

A few days ago, Gwyneth Llewelyn blogged about the Better Business Bureau rating of "F" for Linden Lab. I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, but I was wary of the cases which had led BBB to rate Linden Lab with an "F", as I said in the comments. Any creator in Second Life has to deal with a lot of people who don't understand the way things work in world, and, depending upon what one is creating, sometimes a lot of scammers.

One of my SL friends who shall remain anonymous, deals with more than his fair share of this, and I have from time to time mentored the people who have been frustrated by their inability to understand things like permissions, or linking things, or who have simply dragged the contents of folder after folder of stuff into their rug or house walls or carpet - and then blamed the hapless creator for its disappearance.

So, I was sceptical about the actual cases, but in agreement with the many of the things Gwyneth appeared to be saying about the decisions which are being made, and how consultation and changes to decisions often seem to be made after the protests, and after the damage has been done and not before.

I almost suspected that the "F" might be an April Fool's day trick, although it seems that on April 5, Linden Lab were still showing an F.

What I did not expect was that Gwyneth would out her own article as an April Fool's trick. I'm still not sure what part of it was supposed to be the April Fool... the comments on the article got very heated (as one would expect with Wayfinder and Prokofy, and then Gwyneth herself, going head to head in there).

I sent a link to the article to a friend, who passed it to a friend, who then sent a link back to the BBB page showing that LL was now rated "A" by the BBB. Elfod Nemeth, for it was he, should get the credit for the find, not me.

The quick change undermines any faith that BBB ratings are meaningful. How could a company go from "F" to "A" in a week? Either the initial rating was far too punitive, or the current one is far too positive. It's the same company, the same policies, the same customer service and the same old Linden Lab. I'm glad they are no longer an "F" though. I love my SL, and want it to continue, and I think its chances are better with an A than an F.

My feelings about Gwyneth are that she has done some damage her reputation, perhaps. An April Fool's joke needs to be purely a joke. Pretending LL had an A when they had an F or vice versa, would have been a joke. Angrily blogging their F when it was their bona fide rating at the time... how is that an April Fool's joke? I like Gwyneth's blogs, have always found her clear and sensible as a blogger about SL, but I don't know what to think about this. *Ponders*.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My virtual memoirs: 1

My first experience of a virtual world was about eight years ago, when a friend lent me Riven to try. I was transfixed by the game, which involved travelling around a strange and beautiful place, as an invisible traveller. This photorealistic world had remarkably few people - just a handful glimpsed here and there, in video sequences that merged seamlessly with the game.

It was one of the defining aspects of the game that the explorer played him or herself in this strange world, and that was the reason for the invisibility of the explorer. Everything one experienced in the game was experienced in the first person, as though you were seeing it through your own eyes.

Riven was a point-and-click adventure, which meant that one clicked in the direction that you wanted to go, and the scene changed as you moved in that direction. There were some linking scenes of film which gave the impression of travelling around in a vehicle, and I spent quite a lot of my first couple of days in Riven travelling between islands for the thrill of the ride in the little cable car which linked them.

Riven introduced me to a lot of the skills which I have found so useful in the subsequent years. "Mousing over" a scene to find places where things could interact, collecting information while travelling around, exploring thoroughly for every clue.

I found Riven to be beautiful, engaging and challenging, and it took me roughly three weeks to solve it, in which time I found it difficult to do anything else. I kept journals of exploration, noting the things I found, and I was seized with the desire to make games of my own - not to play more games but to create them, although I didn't really believe that this would ever be possible.

I visited the world often, simply to travel around and see favourite places or to listen to the haunting music which Ryan Miller wrote for Riven. I dreamed about it as though it were a real place, and even felt homesick for it. It's hard to explain to anyone who hasn't played such a game, how immersive it can be. Watching someone else play a game like that isn't at all the same as sitting in front of the screen yourself. There is some magical change which overcomes one and enables the player to become something other, to believe that you are inside the world.

I had played other computer games... very early on, in the 1970s, we had a games console which had to be linked up to the tv, to play pong, a crude video approximation of tennis which involved a square ball and a couple of straight lines for bats. This was swiftly followed by space invaders, and similar shoot and destroy types of game, chess, and all sorts of text-based Adventure games.

When my company introduced Wang word processors for a short time in 1980, I had become a Master at Wang adventure game, which involved giving directions like "go west" or "turn left" and learning the layout of a cavern and where the dangers and rewards lay.

Computer games of the first person shooter type were still pretty crude at this point, and didn't really interest me. By comparison, Riven, being based in what appeared to be a real world, with segments of film seen from a first-person perspective, appeared to be very sophisticated.

I'd been online for about five years at this point, and so it was natural that I should surf to the Cyan Worlds home page and discover that Cyan were in the process of creating a new game, which was to be played online, codenamed "MudPie". I signed up to participate in the beta, without the slightest idea that I might be chosen.

Just long enough later for me to have forgotten that I had signed up, I received an email to tell me I had been chosen to take part in a closed beta test. Shortly after that, when I had signed up at a forum and sent in my non-disclosure agreement, I found myself loading the new game.

Fortunately for me, I had switched from my PowerPC Apple Macintosh to a PC, as Uru as it was called, was not available at that time for the Macintosh. I still think this was a big mistake on the part of Cyan, although I am sure they had their reasons. The Apple community had been a big part of the fan base for Myst and Riven, and so making it impossible for them to play the latest game in the Myst and Riven sequence prevented the largest part of their market from participating.

I have to admit that initially I was disappointed by Uru. Not by the game, or the world, exactly, but how cartoony and unreal it seemed after the photoreality of Riven. There were other differences. The explorer was now represented by an avatar on the screen. There was an opportunity to customise the avatar, add weight, change the colour of her hair, add a cap or travel in sandals or put on a fleecy top. But actually there were very few choices about the face or physical appearance of one's avatar.

This frustration was increased when I started to play the game, as early on in the initial section of the game I clicked a sequence of buttons to be startled by the sudden appearance of a figure of a girl who is one of the recurring narrators for the storyline. She wasn't wearing the standard issue clothing, and appeared to have both jewellery and a scarf wrapped around her hips as a skirt. I wanted her clothing, her level of customisation.

After a short while blundering around in the preface to the game, I made it through to my Relto, the island which is each player's base in Uru, and the launching pad for all other areas of the game. Much like the avatar, each island starts off looking the same, but small changes are wrought to the island as one collects items from other places. One relto looks very like another, though, except for the number of books on the shelves, or the addition of a tree or sticks and stones to the island's surface.

From this island, it was possible to reach the neighbourhood, an enclosed town where it was possible to meet other people. I didn't, although I followed the instructions to collect my ki, a communicator that made talking to other people possible, and from there it was possible to teleport to the city in the cavern. It was here that I first made contact with another player - and promptly ran away.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

All washed up

I have hardly had time this week to celebrate the fact that parliament threw out the clauses in the new act which would have changed arrangements for home educators. In the last few days of a parliament, there is a process during which the government does its best to get legislation passed, and it has to do some horse trading with the opposition. It's known as the wash up. In this case, in order to get the main parts of the bill passed, they had to drop the home education clauses, along with one which would have made sex education compulsory etc.

Whether you home educate or not, the measures that Ed Balls and his merry band were trying to bring in had serious consequences for all parents. The idea that the authorities should be given the right to enter one's home, without any fault on the part of the parents being suspected, was a terrifying one.

It may be a false impression gained from media reports, but it seems that social services under react when they ought to be reacting - as in the case of Khyra Ishaq, the girl who was starved to death in Birmingham - or they overreact, as in the many cases reported by the Daily Mail over the past year, in which parents have been forced to flee in order to avoid their children being taken into care for spurious reasons. In one case, because the children were overweight. In another because the mother had allegedly allowed the now estranged father of the child to shout at her in front of the child, something which social services claimed was "emotional abuse" and which I hazard a guess nearly every parent has been guilty of at some time or another.

Currently we have a very poor system of child protection, it seems, and the consequences for children who are being badly abused are dire. People are reluctant to report suspected abuse because the alternative can be so much worse.

Over the last year, I have come to see the large charities which are charged with animal and child protection in this country, the RSPCA and the NSPCC, in a very different light. I think it is a danger for established charities that they become all about the money and not much about the original causes which lead them to the work in the first place. How the NSPCC could look at what is happening in social work in this country currently, and decide that the area of most concern to them is how home-educating parents are controlled, I cannot understand. They should get back to their business, and look at the terrible conditions for children who have been taken into care by local authorities, and what happens to those children. Or in the case of Khyra Ishaq, they could look at their actions which failed to protect the child when serious concerns for her welfare had been expressed by both teachers and neighbours.

The issue is not whether the authorities should have the power to enter someone's home when they have serious concerns for the welfare of a child - they already have that power, for home educating families as well as schooling families. The issue is whether allowing them to add a clause which allowed them the right to march into any home educating family's home, whether they had concerns or not, would have enabled them to identify abusers any more effectively. I strongly believe that the authorities need to put more resources into the families already causing concern, and not to waste time persecuting families where there is no concern.

I fervently hope that the election result is not a clear win for Labour, as they have vowed to replace the clauses and put the bill through parliament if they win.