Thursday, November 16, 2006

So You Want To Be A Professional?

We're having another 'naval gazing' round of snippy emails on the VRML/X3D lists. The artists who were making money selling goods in Second Life discovered CopyBot this week, an application that is the audio equivalent of using the speaker wires on your stereo to heist DRM-protected songs. They are upset about that and they assert that Linden Labs contributed to the development of CopyBot. It doesn't make sense to me that LL would piss in their own economy, but who knows? I've seen lots of weird business moves on the World Wide Weird. I've worked for nightclub owners that burned down their clubs with the band's equipment in it to collect the insurance. They don't do it themselves. Too risky. They hire professionals.

It's just business, or so they tell me. You want to protect your content, you build your own server farm and then you get to make the rules even if it means burning it down to collect the insurance. There are professionals for that too, no doubt.

What I don't understand is that any group of professional artists can have plied their trade on the Internet would be shocked that they can be ripped off this easily. Ask the musicians. When they cried foul, the web responded with 'how dare they withhold their content from us?' When the police showed up, they didn't protect the musicians. They protected the music labels.

So if you make it digital and put it on a server farm, expect that someone somewhere will rip it off if it has value. By the way, the very fact of the closed nature of SecondLife and the exchange rate for Linden Dollars give it value. Thieves don't steal free stuff. Welcome to the real world.

What an artist professional or otherwise should care about is that their works last, that they will still work over a long long time. The best option you get for that is true unencumbered open standards.

Make it simple.

If you spent weeks, months or ever years creating a symphony and then came back to it ten years later, you would want it to still be playable by competent musicians. Right? So over some centuries, they created a common notation they all learn. There are others such as guitar tablature for specific instruments, but professionals learn the common piano tablature that is modern music notation.

Some 3D artists want the same thing and today, the best deal they have for that is VRML/X3D. I still have the Irishspace CDs. My son pulled them out to test his new computer. He downloaded a Blaxxun Contact VRML/X3D client for free. He put the CD on. Guess what? It all still works. The difference is, it looks better and runs faster.

Ten years ago I started work on the River of Life world. This week after a long hiatus, I'm working on it again. I haven't changed any of the geometry. I've retextured, I've added new features. It all works. I put a proto in it for a sky simulation that Braden McDaniel wrote so long ago that he'd forgotten he wrote it until I showed it to him. I plopped it in the middle of ROL. It works. It just looks better and runs faster.

I don't want to rely on a closed system like a Mac or SecondLife. I don't care what professionals doing work for hire tell me about how much money they made this week only to have all of that work disappear behind a firewall with knockoff technology contributed by the server farm owner. I don't want to have to pay middlemen to place the songs I've written or recorded on iTunes because Steve Jobs decided I have to do that to play in his world.

I want to play in mine. And if I put it down for ten years and then decide to come back to it, I want it to still work. Faster. And look better.

I get that with VRML/X3D. Show me where anyone gets that with the other 3D technologies vieing to be its replacement. If you can make good money reliably in these closed systems, I say do it. If you don't care that your customers may not be able to keep that content alive by their own initiative, sell it to them. Otherwise, use your money and your influence to see to it that the customer and the content are protected.

Today, 3D artists on the web have pretty much one option for that in virtual reality applications: VRML/X3D.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Gods of K.I.S.S.

We all know the rap. Simple is to be preferred. We also know the real Einstein quote is
Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.

As I've been polishing and adding features to The River of Life this week (now registered at VRMLWorlds), I've also been part of a thread on the www-vrml list discussing if VRML is Too Hard, are the abstraction levels right, and why is SecondLife getting all the press. My conclusions:

  • Yes, it is too hard for Joe Web Page. All graphics are too hard for Joe Web Page. That's why most professional web pages are built by professionals.

  • Yes the abstraction levels are about right. It is difficult to do easy things because there are no easy things when building virtual reality with real time behaviors. They call this programming. VRML/X3D makes it possible for professionals to build prototypes (protos) that a less skilled builder (say me) can then drag and drop into a scene for spectacular effects. If you visit The River of Life, all of the best behaviors (the sky, the doves, the star fields, the meteors, the sun) were created by other artists who let the world use them as long as their names are left in them. I continue to be awed by their generosity.

  • Linden Labs owns the servers and the IP for everything going on in SecondLife. This succeeds for the same reasons that Microsoft succeeds and with the same results. In a market, only money matters when it comes to fast growth. Any closed system with an internal money machine moves faster than one that has to openly share sources to sell resources. Time and the river determine if it monopolizes a market, but as Eric Maranne rightly points out, virtual reality is an emerging market even twelve years after it was given web presence by the work on VRML, and VR is only ONE market for real-time 3D which is it's medium, not its market. There are more challenges in front of that market than behind it. It is an exciting time in to be a VR hacker.

  • In the end, it isn't simplicity or technology but chops that count. Every script that I've written in the last few weeks was replaced by one that was simpler than the first one, or altogether with a better understanding of the methods of the objects in the standard VRML browser framework and smarter routing of events. On the other hand, a lot of these have been replaced by even more complex scripts written by stellar programmers like Braden McDaniel, Eric Maranne, Cecile Muller, Miriam English and Russ Kinter and the results are spectacular. There is no substitute for a more powerful understanding of math, physics and abstraction.

    Every day I get up and wash the feet of the Gods of K.I.S.S. and watch them wag their tongues at me. I am grateful for the blessings they bestow. I also know that if the Demons of Complexity cast a better spell, I can manage it even if I can't speak it... yet.

    Monday, November 13, 2006


    At church last week, the hard right wingers are mourning the results of the midterm Congressional elections. In their view, this is a disaster where their way of life is threatened but worse, their livelihoods as military contractor employees. That industry dominates the area where I live and in every election I can remember, the rumor would go round that if the Democrats won we would all lose our jobs. We didn't but fear mongering about losing our stuff seems to be pretty effective. That we might lose our souls isn't but it makes for good press to say we are worried about that. That phrase muttered to me in the minutes before I resigned from my former employer rings in my ear:

    We don't care if it's immoral or unethical. It isn't illegal.

    You know, slavery was legal. The Holocaust was legal. Legal is what a lawyer or group of politicians say is law at some given time in some given administration. Maybe we ought to worry more about what is right than we do about our stuff.

    The Bishop of our church was visiting on Sunday. He relates the story that when talking to a young boy, he asked the boy if he knew what Bishop's do. The boy replied promptly, "They move diagonally."

    And so they do. Who can quarrel with that understanding of the importance of political careers to our daily lives?

    At the gigs I played, the discussions were about what they always are: football and sex. I avoid political discussions with people who are lit up like an off-Broadway musical. Here the uniting force of the party is they want to get laid or paid and I'm paid to keep them in that mood until they leave the room. I've never thought this to be unethical or immoral while they are handing me $20 bills to sing songs that my Father taught me when I was eight years old. As the fellow whom were sure went home in a taxi leaned over my left ear and sang into it badly while attempting to impress that woman with the cleavage all the way to her navel, I saw my Father's mischievous grin in my mind's eye and I missed him all the more.

    And when you're somewhere out that door, though you started mighty poor, there'll be a little something of mine to get you through. My daddy taught his son to play the guitar....

    I think he knows that he did equip me to get by when other means don't. I wasn't too proud to tell him that while he was alive, but I should have been happier about it because those old songs do.

    At the party I attended by invitation, the wine and the sweets flowed freely among people most of whom are strangers to me with the exception of a now divorced friend and her children and my ex-GM and her wife. I was glad to see Janet because I adore her and her sons, and it is not unpleasant to say hello to Alice and Betsy because my relationship with them is business and any falling out there is not a topic for that party nor should it be. No, the uniting force at that party is a common political adversary, the current administration in the White House. ALL of the conversation there is political and rightly so, I guess, but I wonder if the politics of common enemies are strong enough to make positive changes once that enemy is out of power.

    One comment made to me by an elderly gentleman was poignant:
    I fear they voted against the Republicans and not for the Democrats.
    I thought, "D'oh!" because all I was hearing in the room was admonitions about the moronic state of the Presidency and not a lot about the changes the new ruling majority would make. It doesn't bode well. These people need to find a more positive binding force or in two years, they will get another dose of their opposition in power after the Mean Machine that is cranking up even as I type this gets through pouncing on them again.

    At a Veterans Day celebration earlier in the week, I watched the little old man who opens the door at church for us on Sunday mornings step forward to take honors from the assembled veterans and children at my daughter's school. Who knew that this kindly old grandfather, about five feet tall, frail with his cane and soft voice had carried an M1 Garand through the gates of Buchenwald and seen things that one prays neither oneself or one's children, in fact, no one ever sees again. His attitude at the door on Sunday mornings makes a lot more sense to me now. He is very happy to see us. My daughter tells us that is humility. When my wife told her that he is simply happy for every small beautiful moment he has, she replied,

    But that is what humility is.

    As I think about these parties here at 5AM on Monday morning, and I consider the different forces that bind us, I think my daughter is wiser than I am. We should be mindful and careful to consider when those forces make us humble or proud, and prefer humility for through it our happiness shines.

    And I'd rather be happy.

    Sunday, November 12, 2006

    Web 3.0: When A Cigar is Just A Cigar

    There is a marvelously funny article at CNet, apparently from the New York Times on the topic of Web 3.0. It seems we are on the cusp of yet another version release of the Internet. Damm. I just threw out the boxes and shrinkwrap for 2.0 and here I have to install a whole new web.

    Some great bits of wisdom from the NYT:

    Separately, IBM researchers say they are now routinely using a digital snapshot of the 6 billion documents that make up the nonpornographic World Wide Web to do survey research and answer questions for corporate customers on diverse topics, such as market research and corporate branding.

    I guess at IBM, a cigar is just a cigar. Too bad. If the web has proven anything, it proved that some people just don't want a cigar. They want the real thing. At least if IBM isn't mining those sites, we won't all get a case of Big Blue Balls.

    There is debate over whether systems like Cyc will be the driving force behind Web 3.0 or whether intelligence will emerge in a more organic fashion, from technologies that systematically extract meaning from the existing Web.

    As if meaning were going to be extracted from one that doesn't exist? I guess Doug Lenat will keep getting money from DARPA and the NSA for a pipedream. Ok by me. He seemed like a good guy but maybe someone who spends their whole life trying to make a machine that is as smart as he is should get out more. Pipes aren't nearly as sexy as cigars.

    Told ya, Doug: if you want to understand intelligence, study farming. The mammals have no problems becoming smarter. They chase smarter mammals until they marry one, then they wise up fast.

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