Second Life and Half-Life

Well, it was bound to happen. First it was retailers like American Apparel and Telus making their way into Second Life, the virtual world “game” from Linden Labs, then musicians like Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega, and now it’s politicians.

For whatever reason, former Virginia governor Mark Warner — who wants to become the “fallback” candidate should Senator Hilary Clinton get hit by a truck or decide not to accept the Democratic nomination — decided to make an appearance in Second Life, where he was interviewed by blogger Wagner James Au of New World Notes before an audience of about 30 avatars. Among other things, some handlers taught him how to wave and how to keep his feet on the ground (literally).

My favourite comment about Wagner’s appearance came from Rex Hammock, who said that campaigning on Second Life was “right up there with doing an interview with Steven Colbert. High risk, questionable reward and lots of accolades from people who rarely vote.” Touche.

And in other virtual world news, someone with an appreciation for architecture and a whole lot of time on his hands designed a map for the video game Half-Life 2 that is an exact replica of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann house, also known as Fallingwater. There’s a cool video walkthrough here.

A shameless plug for my employer

I don’t often do this on my blog, but since several different blogs and news sites have mentioned the Washington Post’s introduction of reader comments on news stories, I thought I would mention that the newspaper I work for in Toronto, the Globe and Mail ( has allowed reader comments on every story we publish since last September. It has proven to be an extremely popular feature with readers — so popular that on some contentious news stories we are overwhelmed with hundreds of comments.

We aren’t alone in experimenting with such features. As commenters on the ePolitics post mention, China Daily has had a comment feature for some time, and so has a German newspaper — a recent survey of the industry called the Bivings Report notes that 19 of the U.S. newspapers it surveyed allowed comments on news stories. For awhile now, the BBC has had a feature known as “Have Your Say,” which is turned on for certain stories and includes either moderated comments (in which an editor reviews comments before they are posted) or unmoderated comments (in which readers themselves monitor the comments and flag inappropriate ones for removal).

Like the Post and other newspapers, the Globe is experimenting with blogs and user-generated content as well as comments, and with other ways of allowing our readers to become part of a community. I can’t give any details, but we’ll be rolling out new features along those lines in the months to come. To me, that kind of interactivity is one of the most exciting things to happen to the news media in generations, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Social software is not a fad

Ryan Carson says he doesn’t have time to use all those social apps like and Flickr and Digg, although he thinks they are cool, and Phil Edwards says that he likes them too but sees the phenomenon as appealing to a relatively small niche of Web geeks — in his post, he says social software is like a reverse Tardis (the time machine in the cult sci-fi TV show Doctor Who), in that it is “much, much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.” Nice line, Phil. I wish I had come up with that one.

It’s worth reading Ryan’s entire post, because at the end he surveys people like Tom Coates of Yahoo, Mike Davidson of Newsvine and Ted Rheingold of Dogster about what they think of social software and its significance. Predictably enough, Nick “The Prophet of Doom” Carr chimes in on the issue of whether social software is a fad, and says that such apps are a passing fancy — and that even if something useful remains after the fad passes, it will be “less than world-changing.”

My response would be that worlds change in small ways as well as large ones, and I think the social aspect of apps like Flickr and Digg means a lot more than any one of those software services does on its own. Do they take a lot of work? In some cases yes, although my use of is so ingrained into the way I browse that I don’t even notice it any more, thanks to a Firefox extension, and I couldn’t browse for long — or do my job as quickly or as effectively — if I didn’t have something like it. It’s debatable whether Digg or social bookmarking or any of the other social apps are standalone businesses (I would argue in most cases they are not), but what they represent is no less real.

I think that over time, social software features such as tagging, sharing, sorting and voting Digg-style will become more and more a part of all kinds of services, to the point where we hardly realize they are there. Will everyone use them? Unlikely. But I believe that most technology starts with “edge cases,” as Robert Scoble put it — including email, the Web and cellphones — and gradually moves towards the center. Stowe Boyd has some great thoughts on the necessity for and the payoff from social apps here, and Karl Martino says that we are all confused, and that the Web itself is a social app (I would agree).

Does FOO Camp matter?

It started as an inside joke among friends, but FOO Camp has turned into an “event” that seems to draw equal parts admiration and criticism, depending on whether you get invited to it or not. For those who don’t know, FOO is short for “friends of O’Reilly” — as in Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, publisher of technology books and organizer of conferences. According to the Wikipedia entry on FOO Camp, the event got started after an O’Reilly staffer joked about having a “FOO bar” at a conference — a reference to the time-honoured term “fubar,” mean “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”

Over the years, FOO Camp has grown to become one of the hot, invite-only happenings in the Valley — yes, even bigger than Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch parties. And along the way, there has been an undercurrent of frustration from those who feel left out by the invitation-only status of the event, including some people who have never been invited (but think they should be) and some who were invited once but then weren’t asked to come back. The latest brouhaha — not surprisingly — involves Web guru Dave Winer, who clearly falls into the former category.

This definitely has a high-school, “who’s in and who’s not” kind of feel to it, but it also raises the same kinds of issues that the old “A-list gatekeeper” debate over influence in the blogosphere does. Is O’Reilly being elitist by having an exclusive, invite-only party — and if so, does it matter? For those who see the Internet as leveling the playing field, lowering the barriers to entry, and so on, FOO Camp seems like a kick in the communal goolies. But Tim appears to see it partly as good business and partly as an attempt to bring smart people together in a controlled setting, without having to worry about troublemakers, windbags and other assorted riff-raff (he explained to Roger Cadenhead why Dave isn’t invited, and there’s more details here).

For my part, I think Tim should be able to hold whatever kind of event he wants (and so does my friend Stowe Boyd — who gets a comment from the Scobelizer). Would I like to be invited? Sure. But I’m not going to bitch and moan because I haven’t been. Call it elitism or exclusionary or arrogant if you like — the fact is that not everyone can be invited to everything, and sometimes being exclusive (or discriminating, in the positive sense of the word) makes for a better event. My friend Kent Newsome has some thoughts from the other side of the argument, and Tom Coates of plasticbag has his own thoughts (he attended this year).

Yo, Apple — it’s called YouTube

WTF? Mike Arrington at TechCrunch has posted a copy of a letter he received from a lawyer representing Apple, who asked that CrunchGear — Mike’s new gadget site — remove a video clip showing some elements of Apple’s new Leopard operating system, which hasn’t been released yet. The letter says:

“Apple therefore requests that you remove this video from your website and take steps to prevent any further distribution of videos or screenshots of Apple software without Apple’s authorization. If you are represented by counsel, please provide me with the identity of that counsel.”

Mike’s response: “It’s a YouTube video. That’s at Get them to take it down if it’s a violation of your IP and it will stop showing at crunchgear and the other sites.” Good one, Mike. My favourite part of the post? The lawyer’s letter begins with these words: “NOT FOR POSTING.” Lol.

Want to date a math genius?

How many CEOs of online dating networks can you name who have done advanced math research that led to someone getting the Field’s Medal — often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics? I can think of one: my friend Markus Frind, the guy behind, one of the top dating sites in the world.

Markus recently posted a description of how he came up with an algorithm that isolated 23 prime numbers in succession for the first time, and how that research was in turn cited by Terence Tao in a paper he did on prime numbers, a paper that helped contribute to him winning the Fields Medal.

Nice work, Markus. It’s bad enough that you’re making $500,000 a month or whatever it is on your dating site (for which you are the only employee). Now you have to be a math genius as well. Next you will tell me that you have a platinum-selling CD and are hanging out with Paris Hilton and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Is there an echo in here?

This has been said before, but it bears repeating: Chris Pirillo — the guy behind Gnomedex — has a post with some good advice in it about how to keep your blog from becoming part of the blogosphere echo chamber, where everyone writes about the same things and then dozens of blogs pile up on Techmeme like tractor-trailers jack-knifing on the I-95. This is a problem my friend Rob Hyndman has written about recently, and so has Jeremy Zawodny.

Chris’s advice is well worth reading, including “Don’t live inside your news aggregator” and “Stop whining (or worrying) about what list you’re on (or not on)” — of course, his list also includes “create, don’t regurgitate” and “say something original at least once a day,” but for the purposes of this post I’m going to ignore those. The core of his advice is to try and lift your head above the fray and think of something new, and to link to someone other than the usual suspects.

I’ve been trying to follow this latter suggestion ever since my friend Kent Newsome mentioned his “second opinion” idea, in which he tries to link to a lesser-known blogger whenever possible. Now, whenever I’m looking at Techmeme or Tailrank or Popurls, I try to look for names I don’t recognize and scan their posts to see if they have anything of value to add (which they often do). I still look at the usual suspects, but I do my best to at least read and potentially link to bloggers I haven’t read before — although Kent warns that this can go too far sometimes.

Jeneane Sessum has some similar advice she calls “global bloggers link out day,” and Duncan Riley has his own thoughts on the subject of how to keep your blog from getting stale.

Telus, plywood art and Second Life

One of the things I find fascinating about virtual worlds such as Second Life, The Sims Online and There is that in many ways they are very much like the real world — right up to the point where things start to get really weird. The fact that the laws of physics, morality and even life itself can effectively be re-written on the fly has a way of making things very interesting (and in many cases confusing) for non-players. I’ve written about this kind of thing before, and I recently came across another example — and one with a Canadian flavour, no less.

In a recent post on Second Life Herald, a writer named Pixeleen Mistral tells the story of what happened when she went to get a new cellphone for her avatar (yes, she felt her in-world character needed a hot new cellphone) at a new store set up by Telus, a Canadian wireless provider that has — like T-shirt maker American Apparel and several other retailers — opened a virtual version of one of its real-world stores. Unfortunately for Pixeleen, the store had been completely encased in plywood by a “griefer” artist trying for a Christof kind of look (griefers are like in-world hackers and troublemakers).

She came back a little while later to find the plywood removed, but then watched as another griefer (this one with a gun fetish, and an avatar whose clothes were covered in long spikes) first shot a customer (another journalist) and then waved around a sword to show off his script-writing skills. Sparkle Dale, who works at the Telus store, reportedly handed the whole affair with aplomb, and even managed to sell another customer a phone — all while the griefer was busy shooting another customer, a “trend consultant” from named Brighton Giugiaro, for standing between him and the door.

Juvenile? Perhaps. A waste of time? No doubt. But fascinating nonetheless.

Sony’s Grouper buy — research?

I could have written a post about Google CEO Eric Schmidt joining the Apple board of directors (GooglePod, here we come) or about Universal Music trying out an ad-supported music service (all crapped up with DRM of course), but instead of climbing the Techmeme mountain I wanted to point to an interesting post from PBS columnist Robert X. Cringely about the recent Sony purchase of online video-sharing site Grouper.

Cringely’s view of the reasoning behind the deal is a variation on my theory, which is that Sony is basically desperate. They know that the movie game is changing somehow, and that these changes could possibly make things bad for movie studios, but they don’t really know much apart from that. The New York Times says big stars don’t even help sell movies any more. Should they release movies for download? Should they try fake “viral” campaigns like Snakes on a Plane? Or should they hire a guy to drop Mentos into a Coke?

Cringely’s take is that the Grouper buy represents Sony’s attempt at a kind of market research — a window onto the Internet, to see what gets popular and how, so that they can try to figure out how the heck to rejig their giant Hollywood machine. As the columnist points out, it is becoming increasingly possible for performers such as Frank Caliendo to emerge, become popular and potentially make a decent living without ever having touched the traditional media industry in any normal way. If I were Sony I would be doing a little research too.

Google moves Office troops into position

Three guesses what the big story in the blogosphere and tech-o-sphere is this morning. Here’s a hint: It starts with the word Google, and ends with the word Office. I’ll say one thing — like my friend Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0, I wish the search company would stop protesting about how it isn’t really competing with Microsoft, and just cut to the chase and say “Game on.”

Despite what the online Office skeptics say (and Kent Newsome has a point about large-scale corporate use of such apps), the future of applications like Word has to include the Web, and so far Microsoft hasn’t exactly been a shining example of how to do that. The battle has been joined, and Google is likely to be a powerful competitor — and its number one strength is that it doesn’t have a gigantic legacy business model to protect. The more Microsoft tries to accommodate users with a free online product, the more it eats into its massive Office profit margins.

The bottom line for me is that competition is good, and new features that encourage collaboration are good (my friend Paul Kedrosky says he is impressed with Google’s app package — so far). Microsoft has dominated the Office market to the point where there has been virtually no competition, and there hasn’t exactly been a lot of innovation either. If Google can help push things forward and engage in a little creative disruption, so much the better.


It hasn’t gotten quite as much attention as the Office wars, but I think another Google announcement is almost more interesting, and that is the deal with eBay to collaborate on ads and (more importantly) click-to-call features on eBay’s international properties. According to the Yahoo story, this arrangement will involve both Google Talk and Skype. Now that could be interesting.