Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tuesday in Melbourne

Morning: Melbourne Aquarium

Lunch: Southbank, Bistro Vite

Afternoon: Fitzroy Gardens

Dinner: Vue de Monde for a stupendous 10 course degustation menu:
  • Bisque with tartare of jamon and poached quail's egg in lettuce leaf
  • Mushroom risotto with shaved West Australian truffles
  • Salmon, presented smoked, mousse and as "salmon jerky", with German caviar
  • Soup (prepared at the table as an infusion done in a 1950's style coffee maker, using stock, herbs and mirepoix), poured over tartare of King Fish covered in a veil of buffalo mozzarella cheese
  • Carpaccio of fois gras with baby pear and fennel
  • Slow cooked pork belly with a pork rillette pancake and stuffed baby apple, dried green apple strip and apple puree
  • Medallion of New Zealand venison with a mille feuille of saffron mousseline and leg meat
  • Goat's cheese served a curd and ice cream, with rose petal and rose jelly
  • Frozen golden kiwi fruit "lollipops" dipped in mint jelly and served with raspberry jelly (we think)
  • Smoked Valrhona chocolate cigar

And matched wines. I need to walk a lot for the next few days.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Doll's House, Web 2.0

When I was a little girl, I had a doll's house. This was a long time ago, the late 1960's I suppose, so the doll's house was not the sort of plastic arrangement that 21st century little girls have. It was made of wood, probably by someone with a turn for woodwork, rather coming from a factory. The walls were covered with pieces of wall paper, and I had a collection of pieces of furniture for it (some of which I still have in a storage box somewhere). Around the same time my brother and I had a big box of Lego blocks and menageries of plastic animals. There weren't many human figures, and I was never really a doll-positive child, but we enjoyed constructing complex buildings and getting everything "just so" (I'm going somewhere with this, trust me).

Roll forward to the mid-1980's, and I was living in Canberra and working for the National Library of Australia (as a librarian). Canberra, the capital city of Australia is a rather odd artificial city, laid out by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin. Canberra is an interesting place to navigate: the shortest distance between two points is very seldom a straight line by road. Anyway, the years I was there, Canberra had (apart from a lot of politicians) a miniature village village called Cockington Green, which still appears to thrive.

Whence springs the human desire to model the real world in toys and miniatures? The precise, to-scale construction of objects, buildings and people seems to be a recurring human activity. It's even made it to the Internet.

Back in late May, one of my colleagues had the happy notion that my employer should develop a presence on Second Life. He secured the approval of the marketing department (the money to do this had to come from somewhere), and then made his way to my area of the company offices, where the hands-on technical types reside, seeking someone to do the work necessary to realize his plan. The first person he tried declined the opportunity firmly, and I wandered into the vicinity just in time to catch the end of the rejection, and to say something like "what is it that you want done?" And in short, I agreed to do it. At this point I had no interest in Second Life - I was aware of it, I had looked at it over the shoulder of someone who already participated. I knew that IBM, Cisco, Sun and various other vendor organisations had "presence" in the virtual world. I figured that I was as well placed as anyone to get the thing going - I've played Dungeons and Dragon and similar FRPs for more that 2 decades, and I've designed everything from exhibitions for the National Library to pieces of needlework, jewelry and a significant part of the house my husband and I built. And Second Life has been implemented by a business which wants to make a profit from a user community many of whom do not have a strong technical background: I was prepared to bet that it would be s straight forward exercise, from a technical perspective.

Second Life has occupied a good deal of my spare time over the last couple of months (my manager agreed to me taking on the project on the condition that it did not delay billing work), hence the sudden cessation in blogging activities. However, I am on leave now, in Melbourne for a few days, with only my little Asus Eee PC and a Huawei modem to connect to the Internet. I haven't even attempted to install Second Life, though I believe it will work on this platform. I am supposed to be on leave, and my husband is likely to become grumpy if I appear to be working.

So, a few observations about the experience. The initial brief was to purchase a piece of virtual land, and "erect" a building, and get to the point where a few simple things could be demonstrated to the person providing the funding, so that she could decide if she wanted to proceed.

My first mistake was in not registering for a premium account for my first avatar immediately: I delayed a few days, while I experimented with the system and did background reading. Because I have been doing this on behalf of my employer, and I need to be able to put the costs through with my expenses, it was necessary to acquire land outright, rather than by rental (the last thing I need is a recurring cost on my Amex card). My initial intention was to purchase land through the Second Life Linden dollar auction site. However, to do this, an avatar has to be 14 days old (I imagine that this is to cut down on the number of users who dabble, and then never log on again, and also to cut down on fraud and money laundering). I did not notice that stricture (it's buried in the Auction FAQs), and consequently it was about three weeks before I could really get started. And in the end a suitable piece of land came up on the in-world land sales, and I bought that, 1024 square meters of PG rated land in Yucca, with a water view. I wanted PG land, to avoid the possibility of exposing project sponsors or other management types to some of things one can encounter in Mature rated areas, which might get the project killed stone dead on the spot.

So I got my piece of land, leveled it, got hold of a pre-built low prim beach house (which I think I picked up on Orientation Island), modified some of its textures, so it looked more like an office building, added some signage with my employer's logo, and installed a mock up of a plasma TV that could play one of our parent company's commercials. A reception desk, a couple of chairs and tables, and it was fit to demonstrate. And the demo was well received, but the project sponsor wanted to see some more interactivity.

Now as anyone who has built anything in Second Life knows, on small parcels of land, you run out of prims really fast. Every object requires at last one prim, complex objects require a lot, and you never seem to have enough to do all that you want.

So I deleted the office building, and started again (I'd learned a fair amount about building by now), and I constructed something a bit more fanciful, but prim-efficient. Then I set out to demonstrate the bells and whistles that you can build into Second Life: a waving Australian flag, revolving sign, sliding doors (with sound effects), email to and from the real world, automated Notecard distribution, and so on, and so forth. I installed scripted teleportation stands, for moving between the levels of my new building. I tinkered with the textures, so that I could put vertical blinds on some windows.

And just when I thought I had it all done, someone bought up all the land around my parcel, altered the land levels and deleted some of the features that I had been relying on for background, so I had to shuffle things around. I finally got it to the point where I could make a little movie of it just before I went on leave, and I have left the movie with the person who started all this. I'll see what he wants to do next when I get back.

Now I have to say that I don't intend to stay in Second Life. I have a very busy first life, and my second life is currently as a first level ranger in a newish D&D campaign. So Second Life is really my third life. But I have found the experience interesting - I have spent almost no time interacting with other avatars - but it is possible to spend hours trying to get a door handle to look just right, to get the fabric on a chair to look believable, or to get the walls of a garden properly aligned. The more time I spend on it, the more it reminds me of the old doll's house.


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