Archive for the ‘Second Life issues and trends’ Tag

Emerald and the Death of Trust

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

The Emeraldgate incident, like most similar incidents, goes to the heart of one of the things that make the Internet work — trust.  Yeah, I know; Second Life is supposed to be a model for Net 2.0.  But even here, trust is one of the key things that rocks the planet.

Trust is one of the foundations of society.  We all trust each other that we’re not going to steal from each other’s houses, that our spouses aren’t going to cheat on us, that we won’t end up stabbed in our bed, that our bosses won’t simply fire us because they didn’t like the shirt we wore today.  Trust has glued civilization together since early men chose to work together to bring in the food on a hunt.  You just can’t get away from it.

Trust extends to computer systems as well.  The Golden Age days of computing, the era of the True Hackers of MIT and Stanford [1], provide one of the best illustrations of this.  If you’re unaware of such things, go and read Hackers:  Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, and find out some of the fundamental history of these machines we’re playing with.  In the beginning, as opposed to the “batch-process” methodology used on most mainframe giants of the time (re:  IBM machines), these ancient heroes would cut their program on a paper tape — the preferred storage medium of the day; it was read in by a Teletype or tape reader — and then just toss the tape into a drawer near the machine, be it the TX-0 or the Digital PDP-1.  If someone else pulled it out and used it, no problem.  If someone else started rewriting it, that was cool.  Social pressure among the hacker community kept them from doing something malign for the most part.  The same philosophy carried over to when they moved to the more advanced PDP-6 and -10 and implemented a time-sharing system, allowing users to share the computer’s resources.  Their system, instead of segmenting access to files, allowed anyone to see anyone else’s files by default.  And, for the most part, it worked.

Unfortunately in some ways, we’ve moved beyond the joyriding days of original hackerdom.  98% of us today have probably never written a computer program; we’re users, not crafters.  We want our software to be ready to use when we click on the file icon and to do what it’s supposed to do.  And here again, we’re trusting the people who’ve written the code to give us a product that performs, performs well, and doesn’t do things it’s not supposed to do.

Now we have Fractured Crystal and the last version of Emerald.  Crystal’s program was a fine program at first — but then he broke the unwritten law of trust with his data-mining library, and with the DDoS attacks on a competitor’s Web site.  (I still haven’t figured out for sure which competitor it is; can someone help me out here?)  The result:  a strong migration of Residents away from Emerald, toward workalike viewer Imprudence, Emerald getting booted off the Third Party Viewer List by Linden Lab, and a climate of distrust for at least the immediate future toward any future builds of the viewer.  You can bet that their next build will be decompiled by several someones and the code examined with an electron microscope — forget the source code they’ll release for public view — and even then, there will be some who won’t trust the program again.

Ain’t it amazing what great fallout can come from such supposedly small acts…?

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[1] The term “hacker” is here used in the classical sense, as in the original Jargon File, later transported onto paper as The New Hacker’s Dictionary.  This meaning was lost when the mainstream media seized the term in the late Eighties or early Nineties and applied it exclusively to those who break into systems, especially for malicious intentions.  (That comes more under the term “crackers” today, according to some.)

Sic Transit Gloria Emerald Viewer

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

Cracks in Emerald Viewer's reputation

It’s been well reported in various locations about the scandal generated by Emerald Viewer.  The discoveries concerning data mining of IP addresses by Emerald’s developers and a distributed denial-of-service attack code aimed at a competing third-party viewer has knocked even some of the gripes aimed at Linden Lab off the radar.  In the time it’s been available, the third-party viewer had built up a heavy following of devoted users, many of whom loved Emerald for its richness of features not found in the official viewers.  Incredible amounts of power are available through Emerald, from a simple tab of worn items — pioneered by this client, I think — to double-click transport to many locations, down to the infamous “breast physics” available for female avatars.

Now, though, many of the previously faithful are feeling victimized and betrayed.  People’s information and computers were being used, dammit; and nobody appreciates that kind of move, unless they have some strange sociopathic tendencies.  Linden Lab appreciates it the least of all; the Governor has removed its link to Emerald from its Third Party Viewer List, with Philip Rosedale publishing a statement concerning the matter on the Big Blog yesterday. Comments I’ve seen in articles on the matter have Residents deciding to purge Emerald from their computers and download Imprudence, the TPV whose site was targeted in the DDoS attack, and whose code is based strongly on Emerald’s.

Modular Systems has attempted damage control, including an appearance on an SL talk show with Paisley Beebe that had to be taped in a “secret” location to evade griefers.  Emerald is vowing to get back on the TPV list after their lead developer, Fractured Crystal, has apparently left the team and handed over control of the Emerald server to Arabella Steadham. (An article at Sand Castle Studios noted that the Modular Systems site still claimed that Emerald was on the list; however, a check by me shows that this claim has been removed, and I think we can assume with charity that someone was simply slow in updating the page.)

I used Emerald Viewer at one time myself; it was pretty darn spiffy with the features that I used (nowhere near the entire set, but essential ones like double-click transport were nice).  I abandoned it, however, in favor of Kirstens Viewer some months back, because Emerald was taking a horribly long time to download textures or move my avatar.  Even a recent try of what they claimed was their latest showed that, at least on my box, Emerald had become a pig.  Now, with these revelations, I think I’m glad that I’m not using Emerald.  All the scandal has broken something vital to the functioning of anything on the Web, as in real life — trust.  People have to take your word that what you’re offering them is clean and pure, and won’t do things it’s not supposed to do.  Modular Systems has violated not only Linden Lab’s terms of service, but that bond of vital trust.  It will be a long time before I’m willing to extend that trust again.

Emerald probably needs to do at least three things to clean itself up:

  1. Make all of their code completely transparent. No encrypted libraries, no excessive iframes, nothing; just what is required to produce an efficient viewer.
  2. Reveal the RL identities of their developers. No more hiding behind the anonymity of the avatar; they’ll have to take responsibility for their actions, even if the ones there now were not the ones responsible for the things that got Modular Systems into the stew.  At the least, they will need to let Linden Lab know who’s behind this…especially if it ends up in court over the DDoS attack.
  3. Improve the performance of the viewer to an acceptable standard. No more needing to own a screamer system to get just adequate performance — although some of this may need to fall on the users as well.  Heaven knows that technology marches onward, even if bank balances don’t.

UPDATE, 1:21 p.m.: Modular Systems announces on their blog that they have received a list of requirements from Linden Lab before relisting.

Linden Policy Change on OpenSpace Price Hike

Those who have been around the Grid since last October will remember the uproar generated when Linden Lab announced with no fanfare that they planned to raise the purchase price on so-called “Openspace” sims.  The price would increase from $250 to $375 — an raise of 1.5 times — and nearly double the monthly maintenance cost, from $75 to $125.  The rationale given at the Big Blog was that these new land areas, which were meant as light-traffic green zones, were being far overused in terms of both traffic and prims.  Protest erupted quickly, and I commented on it in several articles on 10/28, 10/30, 10/31, 10/31 (second article), 11/3, 11/4, 11/4 (second article), 11/5 and 11/8.  (You will find links in these articles to many more.)

When Linden announced it was changing the decision, many were pleased that the Lab seemed to be listening, at least in part, to the affected Residents’ fears and anger.  The planned compromise price restructuring, however, still chased away many who saw themselves as unable to afford the planned increases even on a stepping-stone basis.  Most analysts of the Grid map noted a large falloff in the number of islands.  Linden Lab denied that there was a massive selloff, as reported by New World Notes.

Still, in an announcement on Tuesday in the Big Blog, the Lab has stated that they will lock down the price increase scheduled for July 1 on owners of their new Homestead sims, as long as the land was purchased prior to July 1.  Landowners who abandoned their Openspace regions may have the land reactivated for no charge.  The grandfathering will last for one year, until July 2010.  Anyone purchasing a Homestead on July 1 or later will pay the full price as stated in the November 5, 2008 Big Blog announcement.

Ari Blackthorne in Common¦Sensible suggests that this is a potential move to avoid another land abandonment or selloff, although he also sees it as a potential olive branch.  The comments on the SL Discussions is the usual mixed reaction, a combination of appreciation and sour grapes for various reasons, with a leavening of unrelated posts.  Generally, though, judging by the lack of traffic on the matter, reaction is muted.  It could be early days in the debate, but very little, either of palms or screeds, has been published.  (If I’m wrong, please leave links in the comments below.)  I do wonder if any great notice has been taken of the announcement.

For those interested in owning land in Second Life, the move seems to me a generous one as far as it goes.  Those who stayed in world and were bracing themselves for an economic shock in a month will get at least a year’s relief on the matter, and in their bill.  Former Residents who left for OpenSpaces have the opportunity to rebuild their areas in Second Life at little penalty, other than paying the $20/month boost from what they started out with.  What would be nicer would be a continued freeze on prices if company revenues allow next year.  Hopefully Jack and Mark will consider this as the next year rolls around.

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Running Over Openspace News….

I’ve been busy in the Real World for the past few days, unable to keep up with the in-world news (blame it on Election Day!).  Now I’m trying to catch up on things in the Openspaces flap.

And my chief thought is that I left off, or left obscure, something from my analysis of the Linden policy reevaluation in my previous article.  It’s that I’m willing to trust Linden Lab’s explanation of what was going on in the guts of the void sims that triggered the whole kerfluffle in the first place.  What reason, after all, would the Lab have for jacking rates like this when there are alternatives out there for people to hare off to — as some have done or are threatening to do?  As I’ve pointed out, along with Hypatia Callisto, their original announcement can be explained more simply, and much more satisfactorily, by Hanlon’s Razor than by proposing Machiavellian hypotheses for soaking Residents of money.  In other words, whatever mysterious Linden assigned to write policy announcements has blown it again.  To borrow from Goethe (and the Wikipedia article):  “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”

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On the other side of the spectrum, Crap Mariner has put up a photo on his Flickr stream, which I discovered when I was stopping by New World Notes.  It’s a rather nice commentary….

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Unless something fresh comes along, I’m planning to shelve Openspace coverage for the time.  I’m just worn out by this one, and I need to write about some fluff for a bit.  I’m headin’ down to the Blarney Stone for a drink….

Linden Lab Revises Planned Openspace Price Change

As promised, Mark Kingdon released an article for the Big Blog today, announcing changes to the planned price increase on the Openspace sims. As you may recall from our last exciting episode, it was originally planned to do a blanket increase on setup and maintenance (“tier”) in January 2009, with the tier rising from $75 USD to $125. The result was quick (if not instantaneous) and substantially explosive. In addition to blog reactions, a substantial Forum thread was started by the Lindens that grew to at least 250 pages, filled with gripes — but also with calmer, thoughtful commentary and suggestions.

The Lindens read, and listened, and considered. Now they’ve answered:

1. We are going to retain the Openspaces product at its original price point and its original intended use (forest, water, etc.). We will have technical limitations to help regulate their use, initially avatar and prim limit restrictions, eventually event, classified and script limits. Those of you who chose to use the Openspaces as intended may stay at the US$75 rate, but will need to contact the concierge team to do so.

2. If you want more than an Openspace, we will offer you the choice of moving to a new product called Homesteads that is intended for light use such as low density rentals. For existing Openspace owners we will phase in the price increase for this new product over the next 6 months. Homesteads will also have technical limits for avatars and prims, and eventually script limits as well.

* January 5, 2009 – non-compliant Openspaces will transition to Homesteads and the maintenance fees will go from $75 to $95 per month. We will offer an educational discount to qualified educators on the new Homestead product. The discount amount will be the same as Private Regions, roughly 30%.

* July 2009 — the maintenance fees for Homesteads will go from $95 to $125 per month.

There is more detail in the FAQ posted at the Knowledge Base, and a new Forum thread for comment.

This has to be looked at carefully, but I’m not sure that it’s a better deal for the ones who will get burned most — the Residents who were obeying the rules. If I follow correctly, the original void sim had an 1875 prim allowance; now they’re planning to drop it to 750 prims, and with script restrictions in the future that may wash out some recreational vehicle use (this is uncertain as of writing). The people staying in the new Homestead sims will eventually still pay the $125; it’s just deferred until July 2009, instead of January. I won’t say this is a bait-and-switch routine, as some posters in the Forums are accusing the Lindens of doing; I’m not a network or other form of technical hardware specialist, and I’m willing to accept their explanations for now. What I do say is that the proposal is imperfect, and needs more consideration by Linden Lab. It sounds as if they are still willing to listen to calm and reasoned debate — the best kind — and something better could be thrashed out yet.

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Other reactions:

  • Hypatia Callisto suggests that the solution is for Linden Lab to allow large communities to rent their own server and divvy up resources within that area.
  • New World Notes is running a poll on the question. At writing, the “dissatisfied and worried” camp is leading, with about 38% of the total; but those satisfied are second at just under 30%. James also writes about the question for GigaOM, noting that a lot of the “contentment” is seasoned with a good bit of grumbling as well.
  • In the category of “contented”: Common Sensible; Crap Mariner; Harper Beresford; Nexeus Fatale.  Not thrilled:  Hotspur Otoole.  Okay but critical:  Raul Crimson.

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New Openspace Statement from Linden Tomorrow

The Big Blog has word from Jack Linden that Mark Kingdon will put up a piece tomorrow on the Openspace flap.

The post will be our response to all of the great feedback you have provided and will include details about how we intend to proceed regarding Openspaces.

I don’t know if this is promising, but it shows that Linden Lab does at least seem to listen to their customers.  Be there, and here, tomorrow!  (However, I’ll probably be posting late on the matter, as I have morning shift RL.)

SL Openspace Controversy — Hamlet Au Interviews Mark Kingdon

Wagner James (Hamlet) Au of New World Notes got an opportunity to sit down with Mark Kingdon, a.k.a. M Linden, the CEO of Linden Lab, and questioned him about the Openspace controversy set off by last week’s announcement.  Read his article here!

The best comment I’ve seen on his article (to this point of writing) is by Hypatia Callisto, who headed her comment with one of the best “scientific laws” ever created, Hanlon’s Razor:  “Never ascribe to conspiracy what you can ascribe to mere stupidity.”  The comment is for those who are certain that Linden Lab is jacking rates to make money preparatory to an IPO, or just to fill company coffers.

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