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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

THE DREADNOUGHTS OF CORDOVA!

The last time I rode on a space ship with the chimp named Derek Jones, it was on a UFO featuring an abduction tractor beam and a midget co-pilot with a giant, aquamarine probe. Derek hasn't been in-world for quite awhile, he tells me, because he's been busy teaching fencing to some kids at a local high school. (And here's yet one more case where I'm unable to shake an avatar's image out of my head, against all logic. I know Derek's a young dude living in Chicago, but when he tells me about the fencing, all I can picture is a monkey with a rapier, hopping around a gym.)

This particular space cruiser (a dreadnought, more like) belongs to Kyrah Abbatoir, and though she's still completing its impulse drive (the ship is so large, it's actually comprised of three segments that need to move in tandem), it's an impressive sight, hovering over Cordova. The "sandbox sim" of Cordova is where you're likely to see all manner of dreadnoughts, some of the old school seafaring variety, but mostly the kind designed to take to the air, or deep space. Turning Cordova into an unofficial drydock for dreadnoughts seems to be part of a larger subculture of spacepirate roleplayers, in Second Life-- part builders, part anime fans, and when the necessity arises, part rival wargamers.

I got a glimmer of this bit from Zate Kojima, founder of the Zaku Falcon Air Pirates, and no slouch as a shipwright, himself. (He gave me a quick tour of the hundred meter-long battle cruiser he's completing now.) Commander Kojima had his own perspective on the rivalry-- and hints at a coming showdown.

"When I first started the Air Pirate group," Kojima begins, "this guy [name expunged!], joined in. For some reason he didn't like it, and so he jumped ships to be a Space Pirate. He joined back after awhile, and then he left again. So I told him I had no choice but to release him from being an Air Pirate. He became furious at that, so he created a band of people known as Pirate Hunters. My close friend, when he found out, went undercover to find out what they were going to do. And he discovered that they are going to launch a full scale attack on all pirates, at an unknown date and time. Specifically, against the Air Pirates.

"So now all of today," Commander Kojima concludes, "I've been rallying other pirates around the world, trying to tell them about it. The only option we have... is to fight. War."

"When's the war gonna break out?" I ask.

"How should we know!" Kojima roars. "It's not scheduled on an exact time, you know. It could rage at any second. But what I'm assuming is that the battle will take place above the skies of Cordova."

And so it might.

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LIVE FROM THE NEW NEW WORLD

I wasn't planning to check in so soon with our man in Balad, Iraq, but then reality went and intervened, when Iraqi sovereignty kicked in a few days ahead of schedule. Last night, I noticed Dach Stryker was in-world, so I brought him into the Jessie combat sim, to tell us a bit more about the handover, from his in-country perspective. We meet inside an underground bunker run by Jessie residents, who seem to be using it as a safehouse for the manufacture of various virtual contraband. I thought Jessie would be the best place to talk, seeing as how Dach himself is in a war zone, while Jessie became Second Life's own battleground, during the war in Iraq.

It's morning in Iraq, when we talk, and Dach has just got off the night shift. I ask him what he did, on his shift.

"Umm," Dach answers. "Well, watched a little Dark Angel, played some UT 2004, and surfed the Net, your normal war stuff." He laughs. "My job is mostly kind of a babysitting job until something goes down."

In the bunker, the highly armed Jessie denizens eye Dach warily.

"So," Lance LeFay demands, "what's special about this noob?"

"Dach's logging in from Balad, 60 miles outside of Baghdad," I say.

Veteran Jessie resident Syank Nomad looms above Dach. He's wearing a Confederate officer's uniform with a rocket launcher on his shoulder.

"You from the military?"

"Contractor," says Dach. "Ex-Air Force."

"Very cool," LeFay allows.

"God bless you guys over there," Nomad says. "Be safe, don’t get captured. I support our troops one hundred percent, but I sometimes wonder if those [Iraqi] people appreciate what the [hell] we are doing for them."

"Yeah they do, for the most part," Dach replies. "There are just a lot of idiots that don't-- they are a minority. Fortunately, I am pretty safe on the base... except for the mortars and rockets."

"…keep getting so pissed at what those [bastards] are doing to our people who get captured," Nomad continues, seething.

I turn to Dach. "I was gonna ask you about that-- what happened the day sovereignty got passed over?"

"Well, the mortar attacks have stepped up a little, but not a whole lot different. They pulled a fast one with early turn over of power," he finishes, laughing.

"So how'd you hear the news of the handover?"

"When I went into work yesterday, and pulled up CNN.com."

"YOU HEARD THAT [NEWS] ON CNN?!"

"Yeah, not even the military knew about this one... was pretty secret."

"I heard it about thirty minutes after it happened," says LeFay, stunned. "Go figure."

While we talk, someone gives Dach an M-60 machine gun, to play with. In Jessie, the M-60 is a good way of getting a good night of entertainment. Where Dach works, the M-60 is office equipment.

"So Dach," I ask, as he points the M-60 this way and that, "nothing much changed, since handover?"

"Nah."

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INSTANT DIALOGUE ON SEX IN SECOND LIFE

"Instant Insights on Sex and Race", a short entry from June 18 has since generated a pretty interesting conversation on gender in-world, on its message board. If you're interested in the subject, well worth a look. Some samples from the fray so far:

"You should have to play your real life gender on Second Life. No exceptions...
[I]f you are male, [the system] should create a male avatar... Men and women
don't even think slightly the same, and it is almost a crime to try to trick others."

"Gender and sex are fascinating, especially when you can ignore them. I will
admit getting paranoid that I don't know who is what, but who is to say that
how they present themselves is not closer to the truth of who they really are."

"I absolutely do not want any rules about how we can portray ourselves here, but
I do feel for people who might get attached to someone they think is one gender
when in reality they are not."

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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

THE SIM'S STORY, CHAPTER 4

(Being an ongoing account of one simulator's history, from its appearance in the world to the community that emerges from it. Chapter 1 here; Chapter 2 here, Chapter 3 here.)

A few days after I talked with Melissa Westerburg from the balcony of her new home (see Chapter 3), I returned to find the view had changed, somewhat. The picturesque view of the Japanese castle to the South was now blocked by, well, an Apollo-sized rocket and a launch pad and a control room. Not necessarily the thing you want to see, while sipping white wine from from the deck and trying to enjoy the sunset.

"Like it, Hamlet?" Sophos Casanova asks me, when I meet him in his unfinished HQ. "Needs some stairs," he decides, and begins adding just that.

"Are you actually going to launch rockets?"

"Yup. Script is being made for me. It will fly to Welcome Area, and [create] lots of smoke at ignition... and a huge flame," he promises. "It will vanish there and a new one will show. I hope people are willing to pay for that."

"Will it make a lot of noise when it launches?" I ask Sophos.

"Absolutely."

"Do you think the neighbors will complain?"

Sophos turns to me. "Do I have neighbors?"

Yes there are, I tell Sophos. I refer him to the luxury home directly opposite from his in-world Cape Canaveral.

Another spaceport visitor named Catfart Grayson overhears my question, and offers a suggestion: "Hand out free earmuffs."

He peers at me. "Ah Hamlet-- the reporter guy?"

"Yep," I answer.

"Read your stuff. A good read."

"Thanks, Catfart," I answer. "And I've always wanted to say, 'Thanks, Catfart!'"

Sophos says that if the neighbors complain about his space flights, "I will settle as good adults do." When I speak with him, on June 24th, Sophos has only been in-world for about two weeks. "I got the [rocket pad] idea from Michael Linden... this place was perfectly suited," he says, referring to the large size of the waterfront property, and its surroundings. "It's 2000 [square meters] of land. Besides, lots of no-build-zones in the area. Can't have the rocket smash into other people's buildings." He's from Holland, so it's late for him, when we talk; we let the interview wind down-- but not before he tells me that the debut launch should be soon. (In fact, I may have missed it. Last weekend, I made a quick fly-by, and spotted a discarded rocket submerged under water, a few hundred feet from the port.)

The next day, I ask Melissa Westerburg what she thinks about her new neighbor, the in-world Von Braun who's about to start sending rockets into orbit-- and I have to admit, I'm expecting a dramatic burst of NIMBY outrage.

"Actually," says Melissa, "[I] think it's pretty neat. I love seeing how everyone comes up with stuff."

"Did you know he plans to launch those rockets with smoke and sound effects and everything, on a regular basis?"

"No, I sure didn't." She laughs. "I didn't even know he had launched anything."

"He plans to pretty soon. Next week, I think."

"Oh cool," says Melissa, "I hope to be able to be online and see that."

And as it happens, the view of the spaceport is pretty cool, from her deck. The question is what their new neighbors will make of it. Because in the last few days, over seven new patches of Tenjin land were snatched up, at auction, and at fairly high prices, including the lease rights to 2048 square meters for L$30377 (about US$120), bought after a fierce [or more accurately, "intense" -- WJA, 6/29] bidding war between two residents. So three weeks after it emerged from the waves, the Tenjin community continues to grow.

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Monday, June 28, 2004

FLOATING LIFE

Last week saw a burst of celebratory activities, to commemorate Second Life's one year anniversary-- a Beta-era museum here, a time capsule opening there-- and featured at its most spectacular an anniversary parade of water-borne floats, going up and down the waterways of the new Hawaii-themed simulators. There were tributes to classic computing, including VERTU's homage to Jaron Lanier and virtual reality, 90's style, and even more lovably geeky, a float modeled after "the mighty 6502 Microprocessor". On the artsier side of things, there was a float based on Gerome's classic painting "Pygmalion et Galatea"; on matters more somber, there was a float for the friends of the Iraq War memorial, featuring several people in full dress military uniform, standing at attention, next to a pair of boots and an M-16 stood upside down, while "taps" played, from the float's loudspeakers, echoing along the banks, as it passed hundreds of onlookers, standing on the shore.

I should be posting my own screenshots of the event, later in the week, but meanwhile, here's a couple resident-created sites, that also covered the festivities: Owen Khan's entry on the acrobatic Eurolifer float, and a slideshow "newscast" from SLBN Productions.

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Friday, June 25, 2004

WITCHBOY IN-WORLD! ACCLAIMED GAME DEVELOPER HARVEY SMITH COMES TO SECOND LIFE (7/1, 6pm PST)

Well, it's been difficult for me to keep this a secret because I'm such a big fan, but I can now announce it. Consider this an adjunct to the Hamlet Linden Book Club, expanded to include authors in other medium. Harvey's a personal friend who makes excellent games and has a lot to say about them. I know I'm looking forward to this. Boilerplate below. -- WJA

In conjunction with Linden Lab, New World Notes is proud to announce 90 minutes of in-world conversation with Harvey Smith, a lead designer and project director on the revolutionary and widely admired "Deus Ex" franchise from Ion Storm/Eidos Interactive. A longtime veteran of the game industry, Harvey is already on hand to judge Second Life's first Game Developer Competition, and this coming Thursday, he will sit down with Hamlet Linden before a live in-world audience to discuss his career, his theories on game design and his views of the industry, and the artistic and cultural perspectives that fuel his work. (Among these topics, they'll be discussing Harvey's signal essay, "The Future of Game Design", among the other writings on his site, so try and give them a read before the event time.)

If you're already a Second Life resident, check July 1st's Events calendar for more information; if you're not a resident but would like to attend the forum with Smith, consider registering for a 7 day free trial or a Basic Account, with a one-time fee of $9.95. (Further details on Second Life and account options here.)

For further information, post in this forum, or e-mail hamlet@secondlife.com, or in-world, send an Instant Message to Hamlet Linden.

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THE SIM'S STORY, CHAPTER 3

(Being an ongoing account of one simulator's history, from its appearance in the world to the community that emerges from it. Chapter 1 here; Chapter 2 here.)

On June 18, I had a chat with Melissa Westerburg, who secured the corner of Tenjin for just under US$100. She had to keep the interview brief.

"My kids are busy [now]," Melissa warned me in advance. "Just not sure how long."

She takes me on a brief tour of her luxurious home, which a friend bought for her from a prefabricated kit. "I tried building one but I couldn't get everything lined up correctly," she says. "So [I] figured wait and learn some more, then I'll try."

"So the auction got pretty competitive for this plot of land," I begin.

"Yeah it did," she says, smiling. "My husband is the one that was actually doing the bidding for me." He has an account himself, but doesn't use it often. They decided on a maximum bid of US$115, and fortunately, came out on top, some $20 under that ceiling.

I point out that it's a lot of money to pay, for the right to lease this land on a monthly basis.

"The only thing I can say is, I just wanted it, It's beautiful out here. I can just sit out here and watch the sunsets. I mostly play at night once [my kids] have gone to bed; I do have some time during the day to play but mostly end up away from the keyboard." Far as what she'd like to on her tiny island, "I'd like to build a house and just learn to build things."

I get a fairly different story, when I ask Clint Cartier what he plans to do with the property he successfully bidded on in Tenjin.

"I have land in Tenjin?"

"According to the auction site, you do."

"Oh," says Clint. "Must have forgotten."

Turns out, Clint bids on a lot of properties, on a regular basis. "If I bid on it," Clint explains, "I did for resale. I am currently building in Yamato." I find the plot of land he bid on, and show it to him on the auction site-- it's actually located near the center of the sim, and it's totally underwater.

And then it comes to him. "OH, OK... Basically, I figured If I could get the land [in Tenjin] at a low price at the auction, I could resell it in-game for a small profit. That's why I forgot about it," he laughs. "It sold."

"IT'S UNDERWATER!"

"Yes, I thought of putting a large yacht I made, with LAND FOR SALE signs on the side. I put a yacht on the water over the land... The land was sold. The yacht is gone."

He believes he sold it for Linden $2900, which would mean he made a profit of L$1610, in the resale-- he originally bought it at auction for L$1310. (A profit of five bucks, in US dollars.)

"I try to price the land for quick sale," says Clint. "$L2900 is not a lot, compared to land I have priced for $L27,000 in other sims. The Tenjin land was actually a large profit compared to my normal [net]... If I got a good deal for 2000 square meters of of land, I will normally only mark it up $L1000 or 2000."

Recently, Clint has become a pretty active land speculator, bidding on over ten plots over a week's time.

"So how much do you make a week, do you estimate?"

"I am not too sure," Clint says, "because I am new at the real estate business. But I would think at least L$5,000-10,000 profit." (Ballpark, that's $20-$40, in American currency.) He bids not for the money per se, however. "More for the fun of it. But the money is great."

Of course, playing the auctions comes with its own risks.

"I bid 70,000 USD on a plot by accident the other day," says Clint. "I meant to enter $70.00 and somehow got $70,000. So I was sitting there for five minutes or so sweating like crazy. Luckily it only hit $161.00, but it was still more than I wanted to pay. But it was my mistake, so I did not try to back out of the auction. I ended up getting rid of it at quite a loss... oh well."

Meanwhile, over at Melissa Westerburg's island, standing on the deck, I ask her if she's met any of her neighbors.

"No," Melissa answers. "I've flown around a few times but haven't really seen anyone." At the time we spoke, the only visible building from her deck was the rather imposing Japanese castle looming over Tenjin, in the neighboring sim.

By this week, however, that had changed. Drastically. More next Monday.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

NWN AT 50K

Sometime late last Sunday afternoon, the hit counter for New World Notes crossed the 50,000 mark. Thank you, whoever you were, for making that weekend trip to NWN, and making the meter go to five and four zeroes. (Yes yes, I know "hits" aren't necessarily the same as "unique visitors", but then again, I'm not sure how Typepad tabulates their hits. And in any case, work with me here, people!)


New World Notes began its life as a full-fledged blog on January 29 of this year, with an entry on an in-world celebration of (and a subsequent argument inspired by) Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Since then, there's been stories on memorials to a deceased father and to deceased soldiers, of soldiers who survived and thrived, here and over there; of surgeries dreaded and celebrated; on the politics of sitting and the standing of politics; of the dead who rate us and the futurists who never finish tomorrow; of seven games made and played; of emigres from old worlds to new worlds; of grand fancy dress balls and wedding parties planned, crashed, and performed in church; of other services performed in other churches; of going to school, and having the school brought to us; of giving it away for the good of all and coming out to play. And not to forget, of great expeditions that go on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on, and maybe, yet again, on.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2004

THE SECOND LIFE OF BAGHDAD, PART II

Continued from Monday...

To get away from the Phantasie Isle Beach party, I take Dach Stryker to Games Park island, where board games like Mah Jong are played, except on boards the size of tennis courts.

Before he came to Iraq as a civilian, Dach was in the Air Force. "I enjoy the civilian contractor aspect of it better," he says. "For one, the pay is better. We are pretty isolated here, though, not a lot of fighting or anything." Behind us, as we talk, a game of gargantuan chess is being played out; man-sized pawns and other pieces hover in mid-air, for each move. I ask Dach what he thought, as a fellow civilian contractor, of Nicholas Berg's gruesome murder at the hands of Zarqawi's terrorist network.

"That was messed up," Stryker says. "But I heard that guy was kind of a freelancer... running around Baghdad looking for work or something. It was a little weird at first, but I got used to it, and the base is pretty safe. When I first got here the mortar attacks and alarms woke me up at least once a day. Now they are like once a week." Then again, while the frequency of attacks has gone down, they can still be lethal, when they come. "[W]e do have solders get hit and die here, unfortunately. One [mortar strike] hit a few of the Filipinos who do the laundry and killed two of them before I got here."

Meanwhile, I'm also showing Dach Stryker how to import digital photos into the world, and display them as textures on objects he creates, because he has some pictures from Iraq he wants to bring into Second Life.

"I have a pic of a medical Blackhawk chopper that I took," Dach says, "I am uploading it now."

I create a block, stretch it into a flat panel, and display an image of my own, on it.

"That pic of me in a Humvee is for a game called Tank War," I say, rather lamely, "which we can try out later."

After a few false starts, Dach finally gets a photograph of his office in-world.

"Wow," I say. "You live there?"

"Yeah man. Roughin' it. Thank God for the Internet, right?"

"So mortars have hit nearby?"

"Nah, not near me. About a mile away was the closest... [I]t is a huge base [and] they are mostly after the airplanes."

Earlier, I ask Dach if being in an expansive online world while confined on an airbase in the middle of hostile territory helps control his inevitable bouts of stir craziness, or just makes them worse.

"No, it's good on days off, to fill the time. I get some exercise if I get too stir crazy." There's a gym on his base, and an indoor pool. He doesn't have much interaction with the Iraqi people, or even coalition troops. "A few of the [Iraqi] locals work in the chow hall and whatnot," says Dach, "but not like the soldiers down in Baghdad. I almost feel like I am on an American base sometimes. Kinda weird... a little different than [what] I thought it would be, but it all depends on the location. I don't talk to the soldiers a lot. This is a logistic base-- a lot of supply stuff." So much of what he knows about what happens beyond the walls comes to him second or even third hand. "There is some stuff in the base paper about soldiers going into the villages and giving the kids toys and stuff, which is cool."

A cherub named Devlin Gallant walks up to us, takes a look at the tent, and turns to Dach.

"You in Iraq?"

"Yup," Dach answers.

"Military or civilian?"

"Civilian now."

The cherub chuckles. "CIA, then."

"No. Communication. Phones."

"That's where he lives now," I tell Devlin, referring to the tent surrounded by sandbags.

"Wow, Iraq looks like Second Life," Devlin Gallant decides. With that, the cherub trundles off, harp in hand, wings fluttering behind him.

Dach is trying to upload another image from his laptop in Balad to a server in San Francisco, but his satellite connection is starting to sputter. "Damn, keeps timing out."

Longtime resident Nergal Fallingbridge comes up to Dach, to advise. "[File] too big?"

"360K," says Dach. Not unreasonably big, but then, I remind him, "You're probably the first person to logging in from so far."

Fallingbridge turns to me. "Wait, Dach is overseas?" As Nergal asks that, I bring up his in-world profile, and notice that's he's a member of Liberals, Leftists and Lunatics, one of Second Life's largest groups-- many of whose members were part of the anti-Iraq war protest during the Jessie Wall conflict.

"Yeah," Stryker tells him. "Iraq-- north of Baghdad."

Uh oh, I think to myself, here it comes.

"Oh, cool," says Nergal. "Do you get decent throughput from over there?"

Dach doesn't answer, because he's finally managed to import a photograph of the laptop he's using to be inword. "That is the Alienware Area51m," he says, proudly.

"Nice!" Nergal Fallingbridge says, admiring the image. "[I] wanna new laptop."

I point out that it's an expensive piece of equipment to bring into a war zone.

"True," says Dach, "but I am [a tech worker], not a soldier. Plus, I had to have a good laptop, being stuck over here for a year."

* * *

On the 16th, a week after meeting Dach, he sends me an Instant Message.

"Well, we got mortared today, and a couple of soldiers died, and about 25 [were] injured. Did you see the news on it?" I saw the headlines about the deaths, yes, but I didn't know about the injuries, or where they occured, or how. "But were the soldiers on your base?" I ask.

"Yeah, [at] the PX about 3/4 miles from where I sleep... the crazy part is that I slept right through it."

I go in-world to talk more with Dach, and as it happens, I meet up with him right next to the headquarters of a group called the United States Embassy to Second Life.

"It's the embassy for a group that wants the residents to run a self-governed society based on the US constitution," I tell Dach, when he asks. (Or as the group's founder Alexander Jacobs explained to me earlier, to give “a taste of a virtual democracy to those players to yet to have it in their home country”.)

"Speaking of which," I ask Dach, "what do you think will happen when we turn over sovereignty to the Iraqis, at the end of this month?"

"I think that it is going to get a little worse before it gets better," Dach tells me, from Balad. "We will still be here to keep the peace for a while. I do not know much more than that. I just think that if we pull out the people of Iraq are open to invasion from neighboring countries."

I ask him to tell me more about the latest mortar strike.

"It is pretty messed up," he says, relatively unruffled, "but that stuff has been happening since I have been here. They usually miss most of the people and assets when they fire at us."

In any case, he didn't even know about it, until after he got out of bed. "It was my day off, and I sleep during the days anyway. I found out because my dad had e-mailed me, asking if I was OK." In other words, Dach learned about the latest fatal attack that happened in walking distance outside his tent, only after reading an e-mail sent to him from half a world away. And I found out the details of that attack, only because I was in-world when our man in Balad was online, to tell them to me. And so the troubles of the world outside find one more way to reach us here, deep in the datastream that covers the globe like a swarm of agitated fireflies.

I tell Dach that I'd like to make these talks of ours a regular thing, and he says he might do that. "[A]s long as I am still in the same place with Internet access." I ask him to take more photos of Iraq, as he can, and to bring them here, in-world. And meanwhile, to stay safe. Meantime, outside my home, the roiling debate on whether people like Dach should be where they are, at all, goes on; outside Dach's home, people are preparing to put their own point of view across with another mortar barrage, one more time. Eight days from now, things for him and the country beyond the walls may get worse, or better, or both.

And whatever happens, he has eleven more months in country to go.


UPDATE: Belated thanks of the highest order to veteran balloonist and submariner Cubey Terra, for tipping me on to Mr. Stryker. 6/25 - WJA

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Monday, June 21, 2004

THE SECOND LIFE OF BAGHDAD

Dach Stryker is having connection troubles to Second Life, from where he works. (Dach's a new resident-- he joined in early June.) It's not the bandwidth that's the problem, because Dach shares a private satellite connection with his co-workers, and it's 768k/128K. A land line connection via DSL, say, or cable, would work better, but Dach's employer has set the office up in a fairly remote location, out in the countryside, so his options are limited, when it comes to getting online. Still, while he's only been in Second Life twice, and the day I meet him, he's pretty impressed, so far. "[Although] the lag can get frustrating," Dach acknowledges. "Right now, it is not too bad, [but] when I move around a lot it can get that way-- I get some packet loss."

Still, he decides, after I take him on a brief tour, "This game is a trip. You could get lost in here."

In Dach's case, getting lost may be a unique virtue to being in-world, because of the
occupational hazards he usually has to deal with, on the job-- and in the off-hours, when
he gets back in the morning from his usual graveyard shift.

"We get mortared every once in awhile," Dach tells me, "but it is not that bad. The attacks have calmed down a lot. I am not sure why; I guess they figured they were fighting a losing battle, I am not sure. I don't get much intel, so I have to assume, but I am not allowed to leave the base, so I am not sure what is going [on] here."

"You can't leave the base at all?"

"I am not sure I would want to," Dach says, drily. "People want to kill us out there."

That's because Dach's office is based on an old Iraqi air base in Balad, a little north of Baghdad, in the heart of the infamous Sunni Triangle, in a town that's sometimes described as the epicenter for Baath Party resistance in Iraq.

"I have been here about a month and have eleven to go," Dach tells me, standing at the base of Abbotts Aerodrome, Cubey Terra's village of floating air strips. "I am working twelve hours a day, sixty a week." Recently with the Air Force, where he worked on telephone switches in Qatar, during major military operations in Iraq last year (Qatar was the host country to CENTCOM), Dach now works as a civilian contractor for the Army.

"I am in a tent with five other people," says Dach, though adds, "we are supposed to get trailers soon, I hope." And this is where he is now, talking to me by the northern shore of Abbotts, and forty miles north of Baghdad. "I am on my laptop in my living tent. I have my laptop on a foot locker, and we have the Internet connection shared throughout the tents. We have Internet at work in a building also, but the firewall prevents playing. I have a hard line connected to a linksys router."

When I first meet him, it's around 8:30PM (PDT), on a Tuesday-- and 7:00AM in Iraq, where Dach is just getting off his shift. I ask him to describe the scene, outside his tent, and beyond the base's fortified barricades.

"Well, it is desert," Dach answers, "but we [have] a lot of trees around-- not too bad. We are close to the Tigris river and there's a lot of farms land around. Country, really." In the Bible, the Garden of Eden was located between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the city of Baghdad, due south of Dach, was founded in 762-767 AD by Caliph Al-Mansur, and according to an Iraqi newsite, "became the center of knowledge in the medieval ages." Some 110 miles south of Dach are the remains of Babylon, the ancient city founded in 2300 B.C. or thereabouts. This is where the Code of Hammurabi, by the first king of the Babylonian Empire, was set to stone in 1686 B.C. It's believed by many to be the first collection of written laws in the history of humankind.

So in a tent located in the cradle of civilization, standing here at the edge of a digital ocean, underneath a floating aerodrome, and the suburban hills of Abbots beyond, Dach Stryker is looking around, still getting acquainted with the society of Second Life.

"Where do people hang out in the game?", he asks from Balad. "Are there big hangout zones?"

I check the Popular Places tab, in my interface. At the moment, based on foot traffic, the clothing-optional Phantasie Isle Beach Club is number one, followed by Club Elite. "Sort of a sexy nightclub," I explain.

Dach laughs. "Let's try the nude beach."

So we teleport to Phantasie Isle, where as it happens, a beach party is already raging in full swing. Residents by the dozens in various states of dress (and undress) are dancing to the slamming techno music that's streaming into the world. It's actually a charity event, as well, and when we arrive, DJ Feliciaa Feaver is auctioning off the clothes on her back, to generate more donations to a cancer-fighting non-profit.

"CUM ON U GUYS," Feliciaa roars to the crowd. "I WANT TO BE NAUGHTY, AND TAKE IT OFF, AND, UM, YAH-- ITS ALL GOING TO LINDENS FOR LIFE... NOW 12K FOR THE DRESS ON MY BODY, CUMMING OFF AT 20K!"

I wade into the party behind Dach-- and I do mean "wade", because the size of the party, the streaming music, and everything else, is beginning to lag the world into a slow motion blur. (At least in my connection.)

"Hey everyone," I manage to say, amid the confusion, "say hello to Dach. He just joined. You'll never believe where he's logging in from."

Some of the party people chime back: "Hiya Dach... Hey Dach-- welcome... Welcome Dach!"

"Dach," I continue, "is logging in from Iraq."

More party people respond: "Wooot!... Wow!"

Feliciaa Feaver momentarily breaks from her strip auction. "OH MY GOD. WOO-HOOT."

And then they all go back to dancing.

Including Dach. From Balad near Baghdad and Babylon, behind a heavily defended gate, within a tent ringed by sandbags, Dach Stryker is getting funky in the crowd of avatars from everywhere in the world beyond. I have a hard time keeping track of him, lost in the twirling residents, and most of all, the lag caused by so much stimuli. On my screen, the residents are displayed as a blur, and the dancing looks like a kind of strobe-light flickering of limbs, flashing crazily in every direction.

Finally, I'm able to pull Dach away from Phantasie Isle, into a far less populated simulator, where the reality on my screen smoothes out, and returns to a more fluid time signature.

"Whew, OK," I say to Dach, relieved. "This is peak period, so some of the parties tend to get bandwidth-hogging."

"It is actually running pretty good," Dach Stryker says from Iraq.

I'm astounded. "[Your] connection is running better than mine, then!"

"Where are you at, geographically?"

"I'm in Oakland," I tell Dach. "Across the bridge from [Linden Lab]." But somehow, a satellite transmission from the Middle East bouncing a hundred miles up and ricocheting back down into the west coast of another continent in another hemisphere travels faster. In Phantasie Isle, at least, Dach is more in this world, so to speak, than me.

But now that we've left the party, and we're on another island, back in sync. So I go looking for a spot where Dach Stryker can bring a bit of Iraq into Second Life.

Tomorrow: The textures of Balad

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