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    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    Starry night -- The Magic of Second Life

    There's a misconception in the department where I work that I spend all my time "playing" Second Life and that my PhD is dedicated to SL alone. This is far from the truth, and Second Life is but one instance of how virtuality might have a profound effect on the quality of our lives, which is the subject of my thesis. I tend to especially emphasize this point whenever talking to someone who know very little about what Second Life is and its possibilities and limitations. Second Life has unfortunately gotten the stigma that it's either just another computer game, or that its primarily inhabited to perverts and leaches; verificationist researchers and sensationalist journalists (not sure which one of those is worst). What people tend to overlook - or never allow themselves to discover -- is that Second Life is ultimately about creativity. Those who stay in SL do it because of the creativity, those who make money do it because of creativity -- good researchers and journalists look for the creativity! This tends to drown in all the negative headlines. Just as you are about to give up and let Second Life become a sleazy hobby you don't tell anyone about, along comes the true geniuses of Second Life; those who make it a fantastic place; those who understand what it's all about; those who remind you that it's not about the age play, camping chairs or meatspace opportunism after all. Along come the true SL'ers like Robbie Dingo. Robbie has recreated Vincent van Gogh's masterpiece "Starry night" in Second Life. As if this testament to the creativity of SL wasn't enough, the marvellous feat has been documented in a machinima that left me speechless. If you go to Robbie's blog, you can watch the video. I highly recommend the high-resolution version, but in this virtual age of instant click-satisfaction, the youtube version does some justice to the masterpiece as well:

    Friday, October 19, 2007

    OpenOffice ups and downs

    In starting my PhD dissertation I had to make a difficult choice on what word processor to use. I've heard bad things about Microsoft Word's ability to handle large documents, and I have always disliked it because of the limited ways in which you can format paragraphs. The importance of tweaking different paragraph parameters and using consistent styles is something I really learned in Adobe Framemaker, which still remains my favorite program. I decided against it, however, in part because of problems with portability (converting to/from Word is a nightmare and some times you need to submit documents in .doc), but the thing that tipped the scale was something as simple as not being able to do multiple undos in the framemaker version I've got, and my current university not having a license for newer versions. So, I decided to go with Openoffice. I was extremely happy to find out that Openoffice offered many of the same formatting options that Framemaker does, and also heard good things about the way it handles large documents. Some months later, I'm starting to regret the choice, however. As with Framemaker's achilles heal, the devil is in the details:
    • Openoffice does not allow you to view two pages side by side while editing. This is frustrating as hell.
    • Openoffice does not allow you to cross-reference autonumbered paragraphs. This works like a charm in Framemaker, but in Openoffice you have to manually 'set reference' everywhere you want to point a cross-reference to.
    • An imported image was suddenly lost from my document. Might be just a case of "shit happens"but trust is everything in this business, and I thereby lost a big chunk of it.

    So, now I'm dreading that I some time in the future have to give up on openoffice and spend a lot of time transferring my document, formatting and all, to whatever I end up with. Oh well. As we say in Norway" "That time, that sorrow". If anyone have experience with pros and cons of differen word processor when it comes to large documents, I'd be happy to hear about them.

    Update, February 21, 2008:
    I'm back with Microsoft Word. What did it for me was that I, after so many years of doing manual referencing, finally discovered that Endnote actually is a great program. I think I used to perceive Endnote in the same way that I perceived user manuals from IKEA, but I'm over that now. What makes Endnote great, however, is the seamless integration with Word and that's what won me over. Strange how it somehow feels bad to "give in" to Microsoft.

    Update, April 23, 2008
    I somehow knew this was an ongoing process. I'm still with Word, but recently upgraded to Word 2007 and finally I'm starting to feel confident. I've seen reviews that its ability to handle large documents is vastly improved, the layout is much better, endnote integration (see above) even more seamless, and, at the end of the day, it just gives provides the reliability I need. Apperently, Microsoft isn't all bad. Still, as a computer ethicist I somehow feel bad bad about relying on Microsoft (I'm also an avid user of Outlook [!]) -- and for thinking that Google is the best thing that has happened to the Web.

    Tuesday, October 16, 2007

    Radiohead makes piracy unethical

    I recently wrote about Radiohead's release of their new album in digital form, downloadable from their Website with a price-tag that you decide yourself -- ingenious. One of the interesting consequences of this way of releasing their album is that it make piracy unethical -- beyond reasonabe doubt. One of the common arguments pro piracy (or, more politically correct, file sharing) is that sharing an mp3 file is radically different from stealing a album. The latter involves depriving someone (e.g. the record store) of their property, whereas file sharing does not. This argument has some credibility, since the claim is that we cannot simply transfer our moral judgment regarding traditional forms of stealing and apply them straightforwardly to file sharing. Importantly, however, we cannot deduce from this that that piracy is justifiable. This would be, in fact, a logical fallacy of the following form:

    If you deprive someone of their property, you are committing an act of theft
    I do not deprive someone of their property [I'm just making a copy]
    Ergo, I am not committing an act of theft (or any other moral wrong-doing)

    Obviously, the argument is invalid. Arguing in this form would be the same as claiming that killing someone with a knife is murder, but since I used a gun I did not commit murder. In order for the argument to work, the first premise would have to be a bi-conditional, or what is known as if-and-only-if (iff). If the first premise goes "If and only if you deprive someone of their property, then you are commiting an act of theft", then the argument is valid, but you would have a hard time proving the first premise. And even if that works out, you might "prove" that file sharing is not tantamount to stealing, but still there's a long way to go before showing that it is not unethical in some other way.

    Anyway, what I wanted to point out is that Radiohead has turned this around. Traditionally, many arguments pro and con file sharing have been carried out by comparison with "real life" crimes. This comparison does not hold in this case. Instead, you have to make a comparison between paying at least a symbolic sum for the album (the minimum price is 0.45GBP), or to download it for free somewhere else. The deprivement-argument does not hold anymore (if it ever did). Another argument is that "I wouldn't have bought the CD anyway, so nobody's left worse off". This argument also becomes more difficult to pull off, when you have in fact downloaded the album. Thus, downloading the Radiohead album without even a symbolic sum becomes, at least in my mind, a more clear-cut example of unethical behaviour than downloading an album released only on CD.

    Monday, October 1, 2007

    Radiohead release their new album -- pay what you think it's worth

    Radiohead has always been one of my favourite bands. What I find fascinating is that every single album has been great, ranging from their mainstream, slightly juvenile Pablo Honey to their innovative experimentation on Amnesiac and Kid A. Their upcoming album, entitled In Rainbows, is only available through their Website. What is interesting is that you can pay what you think it's worth. This is an ingenious idea, and I for one will certainly support it. The reason is that I believe this might be the only solution to piracy. Think about it for a minute. If you could pay, say, 1 USD for an entire album, would you ever go through the hazzle of trying to download it on e-mule, piratebay or any other pirate way? I certainly would not. Moreover, I would hardly bother burning it to a cd and transfer it to my other computers. I would simply buy and download it on every computer I have. 4 USD for having the album ready-to-play on any computer, without the hazzle of downloading a possibly corrupted pirated version and (if applicable) without any feeling of guilt sounds great to me. It's about time the record companies realize that a digital copy just cannot be priced and treated like a physical copy. Thus, slapping a real-life price tag on a virtual product doesn't work. Instead, they should focus on exploiting the peculiar characteristics of digital media in the way that Radiohead does. I'm pretty sure the record companies are following this closely, so I urge you to support Radiohead's vision -- even if you're only paying 1 USD for the album (this still means 1 USD more in revenue with hardly any costs). If we show that this model works, perhaps the rest of the industry will catch up.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Virtual Reality is a big pool

    As some of my (very few) readers might know, I'm doing research on the Philosophy of virtual reality. In crawling the Web for others who are trying to define the term, I came across a Chinese posting which looked interesting. I do not know any Chinese, so I tried Google's translate function. As expected, the result was rather incomrehensible, but it was still an interesting read in a postmodern way:

    "The main text of the definition of virtual reality, the first of a number of examples of virtual reality system and the right people previously definition of the concept of virtual reality, a pair of virtual reality that the original meaning of a word in Translation easily lead to misunderstanding. Then the author of virtual reality to the definition of three attributes: the simulation, interactive and imaginary. and that virtual reality system is the real world and the inherent nature of the things the simulation and emulation; Virtual reality system is a result of people moving, depicts a virtual reality system and human relations; Virtual Reality System operators can provide a reasonable room for imagination to operate staff can live virtual environment for effective operation. for more puzzling imagination of a footnote. Finally, virtual reality is a big pool, it is entirely possible as a subject."

    Perhaps most interesting, the finishing statement that VR is a big pool, and that it is entirely possible as a subject. In linguistic terms, I guess the latter could mean that we are legitimate in saying that "Virtual reality is...". More radical, and not a position I'm willing to adopt, is the statement "virtual reality system is the real world" and it is, in fact, the inherent nature of thing that is a simulation. I guess this underlines the puzzling imagination of a footnote (sic).

    PS! The illustration is for illustrative purposes only. I just found it using Google's image search, and for some very odd reason it is signed with my real life initials O_o

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    Mediadefender and -- Blatant entrapment

    I'm not going to say much about this, since it has already been covered in great detail elsewhere. However, in case you haven't come across it yet, I'd like to bring to your attention a somewhat shocking insight into the workings of anti-piracy companies. The company in question is Mediadefender, a company which offers services designed to prevent and stop people who engage in alleged copyright infringements. Recently, 700mb of mediadefender's emails have been retrieved and posted online (see 'elsewhere' link above). Among the many disconcerting strategies revealed in the email, the most shocking one is that they launched a Youtube-like Website called, which was designed to lure hackers into uploading illegal content and then take action accordingly. One of the most clear-cut examples of entrapment I have ever seen. I am not one who unconditionally support large-scale piracy, but the use of entrapment is a serious violation of fundamental rule of law.

    Sunday, September 2, 2007

    I crashed into my building today... with an F-16

    I think that one of the reasons why many newspapers love reporting from virtual environments etc. is that it allows them to come up with fantastic headlines. Disappointment often follows, though. So, allow me to offer my apologies for not really having crashed an F-16 into my building... only virtually. I hope I can make it up, however, by pointing out a fantastic easter egg in Google's newest version of Google Earth. Google Earth, as you probably know, is an excellent program that allows you to see the entire world (and even parts of the universe) in astonishing detail. The easter egg I'm talking about can be seen by opening google earth and pressing ctrl-alt-a. This starts up a flight simulator (!). Yes, you can actually take off, from a selection of airports, and fly around the actual earth. I cannot really describe how good it is, but as soon as you get used to the flight controls (which takes some time) you can experience what it feels like to fly 10 feet above the ground in Los Angeles, dive into the grand canyon... you name it. To my big suprise, one of the airports offered is the small airport of my old home town Trondheim. Imagine my joy when lifting off, just to look down on my house (which lies just next to the airport). Taking off from Hamburg, I also managed to fly my F-16 to the University of Twente Campus (where I'm currently living) and, although having lost complete control over the plane, managed to kamikaze myself into my building. In other (more complicated) words, I was sitting at home, flying a virtual airplane that crashed into the virtual building I was sitting in. If you click on the picture above, you can see my building to the right (where there's a transparent pin) seconds before impact... I highly recommend you to find your own building and smash into it. Some pointers for doing so:
    • You have to press ctrl-alt-a to toggle the flight simulator the first time. This didn't work for me the first time, but try searching for and zooming into San Francisco Airport first. This did the trick for me.
    • The slow plane is much easier to handle than the F-16. Unless you have to travel a long time in order to reach your destination, stick to the slow one.
    • If you're lost, you can toggle back to the earth view (exit simulator) by pressing ctrl-alt-a. There you can orient yourself, and when toggling back to the flight simulator simply choose the option to continue where you left off.
    • City names, landmarks etc. do not show up in the simulator, but pins do. Thus, if you want to head for a specific destination simple place a pin there. However, the pin doesn't appear until you're relativele close, so if your destination is far away you have to travel blindly in roughly the right direction before being able to navigate towards the pin. This can be done by looking at the compass in top of the screen and/or by toggling as explained above.
    Happy flying!

    UPDATE (April 4, 2008): I am pretty sure the keyboard combination was ctrl-alt-a back then, but this does not work anymore. Try ctrl-a instead.

    Thursday, August 23, 2007

    Violent computer games and decline in crime

    I just came across this graph today, showing a correlation between crime victims per 1000 citizens and the release of some of the most criticized computer games (numbers taken from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics). I have been an avid critic of dubious correlations myself, but I thought this graph illustrates a nice point nonetheless (please note, however, that the graph is skewed since it starts at 20 instead of 0, thereby exaggerating the effect -- a strategy too often seen in media and politics).

    As usual, XKCD puts it nicely:

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    My Sorry Second Life

    I've had a sorry Second Life since the beginning. My days usually consisted in sitting in a chair or dancing around a pole for money. The pole dancing didn't seem very popular with the surrounding people given that I look like a 70-year old geezer with grey hear, grey beard and wrinkly tattoos. As long as I got my money (which didn't always happen) I was happy though. Still, I didn't really earn more than, at best, 500 L$ per day which doesn't really amount to a hill of beans, or anything else. So, I did what every sucker would do, earn a little cash then head of to the casinos to play Blackjack. Using simple blackjack strategy I managed on occasion to rack up 6-figure sums, but always ended up loosing it all in the end. So, back on the streets, earning money, then wasting it on Blackjack again. It sounds pathetic, but it was my life and I kind of liked it. Then, Linden Lab banned gambling and destroyed my second life. I don't really know what to do now. Perhaps it's a good thing since it forces me to find new things to do (I considered joining an army, but their recruitment policy was to strict). Sadly, however, I've resorted to just scrambling the world for places to earn money by doing nothing and since the gambling obverlords do not provide camping chairs anymore it's not easy to come by. Right now, I am earning money by being impaled on a stick. Honestly, somebody is paying me for being impaled and thereby providing a spectacle for bystanders. What a sorry, sorry life.

    The fate of a blog

    What is it about starting blogs from scratch? I've done a dozen of them now, and I have always done the same thing. First, say a little something about what I intend to do and second, make an empty promise that I will keep it updated. Then, after checking the statistics for a couple of weeks and realizing that no one (0) have stumbled over your blog, just leave it for dead. Then, a couple of months later I'm having a look at the statistics again -- still no visitors -- and then delete the entire blog. What massive waste of time. Still, here I go again... probably my 13th blog from scratch, and probably heading towards the same fate. Oh well, what do I care. I bet there will be no visitors anyway.