Monday, November 27, 2006

Artificial means of athletic enhancement

Preface: The use of steroids as a booster for athletes is dangerous. It is harmful to their health and has unwanted side effects far out of proportion from their "benefits" to mankind. Steroids have legitimate medical uses, but this isn't one. But that's not what this post is about.

Allowing athletes to artificially enhance themselves to become better performers seems to many like a cut-and-dried question, but it's not. Enhancements can be arranged in a spectrum, and where the "dividing line" is along that spectrum varies over time and by situation.

The kind of intensive training, starting from a very young age, that is common to athletes in some sports today, would have been seen only a few generations ago as being absurd, a way to "ruin the game" by artificially inflating performance levels. Most sports now have equipment being used which far exceeds what was available decades ago. Trainers now use computer analysis of motions of athletes to achieve tiny, but in some cases crucial, improvements in performance. Athletes manipulate their biochemistry and metabolism to a very precise level, using frequent blood tests and other indicators, through the use of techniques ranging from diet adjustment to time spent in hyperbaric chambers.

We are long and far away from the point where the plot of most sports movies (where a regular guy with a little talent and a lot of gumption can make the difference in the big game) is more than an exceedingly unlikely fantasy. The use of steriods doesn't really change that. It's just another step.

That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a line. As things change the game has to adapt to the changes, and during the period before each adaptation, those changes will need to be "over the line". When someone has a prosthetic eye that can track the movement of a 90mph baseball precisely enough to hit it every time, or a cybernetic arm that hits them out of the park on every hit, those will be "over the line" until the game can adapt to that. If tomorrow someone developed a steroid-like performance enhancement drug that didn't have unwanted health and other side effects, sports would have to adapt to that, too, and until they did, it might well be best for it to remain forbidden.

But eventually, these things will simply become a new baseline, just like high-performance teflon suits changed the baseline in swimming, and someday, genetically engineered higher-efficiency alveoli will change it again. Human capabilities change; human pursuits must follow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A three-minute religious experience

A brief note here to highlight a song that is, for me, the single most profoundly religious experience I can name. The best way to experience it is to hear the song but if for some reason you can't listen to MP3s, you could also read the poem. Every time I hear this song, without fail, it makes me tear up. It is a profoundly beautiful expression of the wonder that lives in the world when we accept it for what it is, and a testament to the idea that one who becomes agnostic with open eyes and a sense of wonder is the most spiritual of all.

"The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Using SecondLife for abandoned roleplay

One of the ideas I was toying with -- and this is at a very basic brainstorming level, nowhere near intention, let alone plan -- was reviving some long-abandoned work on developing culture of a feline race. This originally was something I got into in Lusternia, which provided us with a sapient, bipedal feline race with some unique characteristics but without a well-developed culture. It just begged to be rounded out, and I and others set out to do so. This soon transformed from an enjoyable creative act to a source of endless frustration, thanks to the problems with the problems with Lusternia, and was abandoned.

The idea came to me in the context of SecondLife when people in the Elf Circle asked me about joining. This SecondLife group was described as a haven for dragons, elves, pegasi, etc. Humans, even those with a fantasy theme, were notably absent (though I was later given to think a few are allowed in the circle). The idea of adjusting my appearance to be elfen or dragon didn't appeal, and as I pondered other options (without any real sense that I wanted to be in, or not be in, the Elf Circle -- it was just the first opportunity I'd had to be welcome somewhere, which is itself worth note to someone as uncharismatic as me) the only thing that came to me was the aslaran race.

Well, brainstorming I had the idea of maybe making an enclave of people wanting to recreate this race and the work on culture we'd been doing; and the freedom SecondLife offers to build your own appearance and the objects around you made that even seem feasible (albeit awfully expensive). So just as something to pass the time, I set out looking for feline body skins.

Right from the start this was discouraging. The few people I talked to about this only could think of a few things I might mean: anime-style catgirls and kitsune, shops that offer giant cat jungle gyms to climb on, and everywhere I turned, "furries". The skins I saw either were humans with a few cat elements (interesting, but completely not what I had intended), or domesticated cats (stylized or not) on two feet, or anime-style things vaguely related to lions or tigers, but conveying exactly zero sense of being a fierce predator.

It's not so much the lack of an appropriate costume that was discouraging. I could feasibly find a better one (towards bedtime a fairly good source was found, not fully explored yet) or make my own. The discouraging thing was that there was no way to explain to people what I was looking for without them leaping into one of these very wrong impressions (catgirl, neko, anime, and/or furries). If I did go ahead somehow, I would be hard-pressed to find people interested, and harder-pressed to be clear that this isn't meant to be some wish-fulfillment fantasy or kinky sex den, but an exploration of and development of a culture of a race: a way of answering, what might a race be like that derived from felines rather than primates? Naturally, kinky sex could be part of that, as could wish-fulfillment fantasies, but only in context, and secondary to the overall intent. But simply setting the tone and purpose would be an endless uphill battle, and I'd doubt I could find people to participate.

I'll keep poking around -- it's a very big world, so maybe there are people who would be more interested in and understanding of this idea, and willing to participate, somewhere I haven't been -- partially because it's something to do. But it's not the only avenue I'm considering for things to use SecondLife for.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Many times before, the idea of a three-dimensional virtual world populated by avatars and virtual objects, shared over the Internet, has inspired software engineers to give it a good try. The technology hasn't been up to it, though. Computers couldn't handle the rendering of a dynamic three-dimensional world fast enough to make movements feel natural; human interface devices didn't offer enough options with sufficient transparency; and most importantly, bandwidth was inadequate to the huge amount of data required. It often seemed technology was ready because games seemed to offer a similarly interactive three-dimensional world; but games generally can get away with huge optimizations in that regards, because they know what will be displayed ahead of time. A truly general-purpose 3D environment is much more challenging to achieve. Thus, each previous attempt teased us with the possibility, then failed because ultimately there was nothing to do there.

SecondLife is promising to finally be the one that takes off. Why is it looking to succeed where others failed? A few interesting ideas make it stand out: the dynamic economy inside the world, more powerful backing behind it, and a heavily user-centric design ensuring that most of the content is created by the users. But the real key is that the technology is finally ready for enough people. Broadband, 3D video cards, faster processors, and more memory make it viable to actually fly over a dynamically rendered 3D environment with fluid movements.

It's not without its share of glitches, and it's very demanding of CPU and bandwidth, but you can do it right now, and for free. (Of course they hope you'll subscribe to get more Lindens, the currency within SecondLife.) And it's very cool. People have built some amazing things in there. The world is breathtakingly huge. If you started exploring it right now even cursorily, you would probably never finish, because more is being built all the time -- not faster than you can explore it yet, but probably soon, soon enough that the head start they have on you would cover the difference.

For all that, though, when I get there, I find myself asking myself, what next? It's probable that there are activities going on out there I'd be interested in -- in a world this size, with this many users, and given that almost anything you can imagine could be implemented with enough object creation and scripting time, almost anything's probably there somewhere. The world is so big, though, it's hard to find anything you might be interested in. Instead, most people fall into socializing as the main activity.

Nothing wrong with that. But it doesn't help me much. I'm already too socially awkward. Being in a slick shiny avatar in a sweeping virtual space doesn't change that; put me in an area with someone I don't know and I have no idea how to start a conversation, unless the area already provides me with some structure. Mostly I wander around just exploring, and my few attempts to interact with someone are generally non-starters.

Clearly what I need to do is find groups interested in activities I'm interested in, and then branch out from there. Assuming that what I want to do is socialize, but is that all? Using SecondLife as a glorified chat room seems so unambitious. But when I think about other things, they all get me into the same conundrum that I have a hard time expressing.

As an inveterate roleplayer, I can't help consider the possibility of treating this like a MUSH. Doubly so as I wander around an elven community populated by an assortment of dragons, miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasi, fae with pixie rainbow butterfly wings, and stately elves toting swords and magic wands, for instance. But to what extent is that roleplaying?

I'm fairly sure the woman I spoke to today is not, in real life, a miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasus. But that doesn't mean she's roleplaying. She might be (and indeed, from what she said, is) just playing herself, as she would be if she could take other shapes -- as she can, in SecondLife. That's fundamentally different from playing a different person, with a different past, personality, motivations, etc. I'm not sure which I want to do, and I'm not entirely sure which other people are doing. In a place this large, there isn't even an answer to that; it's grown too fast for it to have a culture or "netiquette" about things like that yet.

It seems like the answer is turning out to be that people play at varying points along that spectrum depending on where they are, who they're with, what they're doing. Sometimes they're playing themselves in a fancy new body and clothes, and sometimes they're dressed up playing someone entirely different. Those who can afford it can have different costumes and even different bodies for different roles, all wrapped around the same name.

So many possibilities. I just have to figure out what I want to do.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Did you get my message?

Every time someone asks me this question I am amused and annoyed at the same time.

There are a few special cases in which this isn't a blindingly stupid question. Like if you've only just recently met this person and have never gotten a message from them. Or if you've been in so much contact with them that every message is followed up with a conversation.

But in the general case, how can there be any real answer? I can say "I got the last message I got. Did you send one after that one?" Which is also no help, except maybe to point out the absurdity: how can I know about a message unless I got it?

The right question of course is "Did you get my message about the meeting minutes?" Or whatever; enough to identify which message. Then you can just answer.

Makes me want to make stickers that say "If this has fallen off this letter, notify your local post office immediately" and stick them to envelopes. Or leave some around not stuck to anything.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pick up your signs!

One of the things I daydream about doing if I were elected Supreme Tyrant is putting a law into place that forces political campaigns to clean up their signs promptly.

Perhaps after five days had passed since the election, people could turn in abandoned signs for $1, and the campaign that placed the sign would then be fined $1.50 and 1 vote.

Now we just need a way to make sure people can't forge signs of their opponent's campaigns, or steal them to turn in late. Or maybe we should encourage them to steal each other's signs. That'd mean fewer signs to look at.