Happiness 101

I learned the secret to life from my cat.  Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy. I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be.  Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff.  They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World has recently generated some interest.  The theme of Karate Kid, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

Without getting into all the reasons why working harder does not get you more,  let me point out one reason: Economic reality.

According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant.  Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings.  Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest.  The result is we are working harder for less, which begs the question:   Why bother?

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”.  In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not.  A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you.  Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

Another random posting that brought all this to mind was an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you cant always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert.  This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy.  Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great.  Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.  Here’s a brief summary.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it.  Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”.  It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head.  One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose.  Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret.  Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?”  The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing.  Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy.  Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

Why Open Sim is the Future Metaverse (and why it is not the present)

I have been following the Open Sim development for a couple of years now. Some of the latest developments have convinced me that if there is ever going to be a 3D internet, it will be based on Open Sim. I say this knowing that Open Sim currently has a rather low population of participants, low enough that one could question the sanity of such a statement.  Well here is a brief summary of this conclusion.

What is a 3D internet?
A 3D internet is one that is navigable in 3 dimensions rather than two. Instead of websites, you have explorable regions. Instead of 2D text chatting, you have 3D avatar chats.

Why is a 3D internet inevitable?
Sometimes things can be explained easier visually rather than textually, and 3D often gets visual points across better than 2D. For example if you are a photographer with a website, and you want people to see your photographs and find the ones they like best for purchase, the “slideshow” approach is a bad way to do it. After the 4th or 5th click, people start to wonder if it is worth it. Immerse the visitor into a 3D gallery of your photos and people will venture around, allowing them to find the pictures they most like fast.

Hyperlinks in 3D

The thing that got me interested in talking about the 3D web again is the recent development of  “hypergrid” teleporting.  Teleporting from region to region is easy if your start point and end point are on the same grid, but the 2D World Wide Web is built on the ability to move from page to page, where the pages are often on different sites and different hosts.  The development of a 3D web requires the ability to move from grid to grid, and from host to host.

While far from perfect, that obstacle has been resolved.  It is now possible to move from grid to grid without needing to create accounts on every grid or closing your browser.  The picture above is the OSGrid me meeting the Reaction Grid me after clicking on a “hypergrid” link.

It works similarly to the slurl’s in SL except if your destination is on a different grid, your avatar is uploaded to the new grid and your name changes to firstname.lastname @ gridyoucamefrom to prevent conflicting names. It is really cool when it works, but unfortunately a lot can go wrong.  Instructions can be found here, if you want to try it.

Not all hypergrid enabled regions can reach all other hypergrid regions.  Took me about a dozen tried to find a combo that worked.  To get from OSGrid to Reaction Grid, I found a region called Hypergrid Market Middle on OSGrid (a very boring place BTW), then clicked on this link: secondlife://hypergrid.reactiongrid.com:9009

Eventually all the bugs will get ironed out and an independent 3D web will really start to develop.

Why will the 3D Internet be based on Open Sim?
It wont be Second Life.  There are many reasons. First, a 3D internet cannot be controlled by one company.  Second, it is inappropriate for a 3D internet to be under a virtual economy if it is going to be universally adapted.  Thirdly, the designers of Open Sim are moving away from SL’s strict protocols.  Open Sim regions no longer have to be strictly 256m x 256m, they can be larger.  Researchers have managed to put 200 avatars on a single region, and have run up to 40 regions on a single server.  Open Sim offers a flexibility that SL cannot offer.

It wont Be Blue Mars, IMVU or any other current 3D Virtual World. These all do what they do well enough, but they are all designed to be proprietary.  IMVU is strictly a chat program in 3D, Blue Mars is a gaming platform.

The only real open flexible 3D platform that could be competitive is  OpenCobalt.  It interfaces with Google protocols allowing Sketchup KMZ files used in Google Earth, allowing import of the huge library of 3D objects in Google’s database, as well as in the OBJ format.  This is stuff OpenSim still can not do.  My knowledge of OpenCobalt is small, but there are three reasons why OpenSim will win: 1. it is already proven scalable technology, 2. More developers are working on Open Sim than OpenCobalt, 3. It is a lot easier to add KMZ and OBJ support to OpenSim than it is to add the OpenSim scalable multi-region stuff to OpenCobalt.

Of course, something designed from scratch could be better than OpenSim, but it would take years to develop, and OpenSim has a huge head start.  Network protocols could be designed to replace TCP/IP as well, but would never be implemented because TCP/IP is too well entrenched.  I believe we have reached a point where we are stuck with OpenSim.  Improving the platform is easier than rewriting it.

If OpenSim is the future, why is it not more popular now?
This is a very valid question.  SL has more than three times as many regions (32,000) as all of the OpenSim Grids combined (10,500).  The OpenSim grids are growing at a rate of 10% a month so far this year, while SL has only grown 1.4%.  That’s the best stat comparison.

SL has more than 500 times the number of accounts as OpenSim, and over 100 times the number of active players.  At any given time, about 60 to 70% of all regions in SL are uninhabited. In OpenSim, that percent is closer to 99%.  OpenSims one advantage is cost.  It costs 10 times as much to get a dedicated region in SL as it does to get one on OSGrid, but your SL region is 100 times more likely to get visitors than in OS, so if you want visitors, the premium is probably worth it.

Why the horrible stats?  I like to think of the 2D internet as it existed 20 years ago.  SL is AOL, and the WWW is a couple of years away.  The people who were on the web at that time were students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.  So who are the few people on OpenSim?  students, researchers, hobbyists, some businesses and governments.

When it became obvious that the open WWW was superior to AOL, everyone flocked to WWW.  I’m hopeful that history will repeat again with OS and SL.  On the other hand, maybe it is more accurate to think of SL as “Windows” and OS as “Linux”, and OS will be forever stuck as a niche platform despite its parity.

Virtual World Philosophy: Escape From Reality

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.

Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.

Are you an RPer or an SNer?

I was thinking of blogging a review of all the changes to Second Life over the past year, and thought it sounded boring. I was also thinking about blogging about the major FUBAR advertising mess at Facebook, but everyone else has already, and the story is pretty over now.

But it got me thinking. I have yet to actually create an account at Facebook. I have gone over to the sight and clicked on the friendly green “Sign Up” and immediately felt intimidated by the fact that they want so much personal info right up front. That and the fact that the sign up captchas dont even appear in my browser of choice (Opera) tells me right away that this is a shady operation I want no part of.

This gets me thinking about the series I did earlier in the year about Second Life at the Crossroads and the two kinds of players you find in Second Life: The Role Players and the Virtual Utopians. It seems to me that the share everything about yourself philosophy of Facebook might appeal to some Virtual Utopians, while the Role Players would avoid it like the plague. But I think the reverse is true too; I’m not sure the typical facebook enthusiast would even “get” Second Life either.

Could it be that internet enthusiasts self divide into Role Players and Social Networkers with limited cross over?

One of my observations of the many changes in Second Life over the past year, is that many recent changes have negative effects on the SL role player community, and yet I have been observing that the Role Player community in second life is probably stronger than ever. In many ways, Second Life was designed primarily for role players. It is probably the best role player program on the web. In fact I think it represents an extreme in that regard. There are Medieval RP sims, Sci-Fi RP sims, Vampires, Goreans, and you can be back in high school if you want too.

Facebook represents an extreme on the social networking side. You can if you want get up to the minute reports on the happenings of all your friends and what they were doing on the web. The “Beacon” advertising program even allowed you to view where your friends are shopping. In today’s Reality TV “I don’t care if the Government spies on me” openness, it is no wonder why Facebook is so popular. Its like a “stalker’s” best friend.

In between these two extremes, you have much bigger entities like World of Warcraft and MySpace which have at least some limited appeal to both camps. If nothing else World of Warcraft is a fun game and My Space is a great place to show off how insane you are.

Anyways its an idea looking into. Do you like to go on the web as yourself or someone else? Are you a Role Player or a Social Networker? Apparently there is little crossover and a lot of weird looks across the divide.

Second Earth?: The inevitable merge of virtual worlds

An interesting but long article about the merging of virtual worlds appears in this months Technolology Review. Here’s the link, but it will probably require registration to read it.

This of course is an interest of mine. I love exploring multiple virtual worlds, and two favorites are Second Life and Google Earth.

The cliff notes version of the article is this:
Second life is a social virtual world you can explore and interact with using a customized avatar. People are building and programming cool things in Second Life, the scripting langage and access via XML allows people to build objects that tie the second life world to the real world.

Meanwhile, Google Earth is adding all sorts of cool things to their map of the world software, like building 3D models of buildings where they exist, linking to photographs, wiki information, restaurant and driving directions, pointing out geological features etc.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could merge the two?

Personally, I do not think we could geographically merge the two, in fact I do not think we need to. I do not see the point of making the continents of Second Life conform to the real world.

What would be cool is to merge the abilities of both games, add avatar walking/flying and local chatting and maybe even scripting in Google Earth, while adding geotagging and other advanced web integration to Second Life.

As currently constituted though, this makes no sense in either program, If you want to add links to photos or geotags to wiki info in Second Life, just put a scripted object on your land. On the other hand, while it might be cool to be able to explore google earth with a customizable avatar, it would not really add much to the experience (unless it were possible to take your avatar to say Times Square and be able to chat locally with anyone else whose avatar is in Times Square)

What should be a goal is to create a 3D internet standard “browser” that can handle both kinds of environments. Instead of launching Second Life or Google Earth, you could launch one browser that could read both kinds of data and link back and forth or with the 2D web.

Click on a link and Boom, you are in Google Earth’s version of Times Square where you can get a geo link to the wiki page.

But, lets add a geolink to someone’s recreation of Times Square in Second Life, and instantly teleport there.

As you can see, this is already fairly easy to do. but you have to launch 3 seperate programs to do it. What if we only needed one, and what if the links all work the same way, and the avatars and usernames stayed similar, etc.

That is the goal of various metaverse projects. Thats where we are eventually headed.

The Future of the Internet Part 2

OK, Future of the internet part two. Sounds like I should write something really cool and insightful with a headline like that.

Let me just point out a few articles, that show where the internet may be headed.

The first is The Semantic Web by Tim Berners-Lee which was written in Scientific American’s special Internet issue in 2001. In a way, the RSS/XML feed technology which is catching on is the beginnings of the semantic web described.

The second is an article about self configuring wireless networks that the military is developing. The idea is to create a self sustaining peer-to peer network of mobile computers where wi-fi hubs are not available. The technology will no doubt spread to civilian use.

A third article that caught my eye is one from C-Net about how in faster and faster broadband services the slowest part of the web can become the DNS. The DNS is the rather elaborate system that translates “yahoo.com” to network reachable

If you open a DOS window and type “tracert yahoo.com” there are a bunch of hoops that you go through to translate. Your domain request goes to root servers who provide name servers, and the name servers provide IP addresses, and the IP addresses provide content. If anyone of them is slow, then your internet will seem slow. Your speed is only as fast as the slowest connection.

But DNS speed is not that big of a problem actually. While you are into the DOS window, type “ipconfig /displaydns”. When you visit a site, your computer will store the DNS info of that site temporarily on the computer. If you go back to that site, the jump hoops needed to get there are a lot shorter, because your computer remembers the name server and IP addresses of domains you have recently visited.

On the other hand, here is somethig to think about. The weakness of the WWW currently is that all new requests have to go to one of 13 root servers. If these root servers go down, the internet goes down.

But recently we have developed technology like bitorent, which was originally designed to get around copyright laws, distributes file sharing hosting and indexing tasks over the internet, rather than one central computer. Downloading files via bitorent services is often faster than downloading from central servers. There are other examples of distributed networks doing cool things like searching for really big prime numbers or searching for intelligent life in space that anyone with a computer can participate in.

So why not handle DNS chores using distributed networks? There is just such an operation at http://www.opendns.com/.

If such a system could be developed so that root servers are optional, it would also be possible to make up new top level domains completely out of the control of ICANN. Getting out of ICANN means getting out of potential government interference.

Ah, one can dream.