I (still) don’t get SecondLife

I’ve been trying. Really trying. I just can’t find a way to “get” what all of the SecondLife hype is about. I mean, yeah, it’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a really interesting and diverse metaverse. It’s a blast to create and buy stuff, and customize an avatar, and fly around islands. I get that part of it.

But, for education, it largely doesn’t change much over the existing and available tools. I could see it if you were working on a collaboratively designed architecture project. Or perhaps some theatre or alternate reality exploration of literature.

But what I (still) see as the primary use of SecondLife in education is to compel people to sit in rows of chairs to watch a screen at the front of the “classroom”. Some classrooms have innovated – no roof. But, underneath it all, it’s still didacticism with chalk-and-talk replaced with stream-and-chat. I checked out a hybrid event today – a “traditional” web-enable streaming video conference, simulcast into SecondLife.

SecondLife simulcast

In this screenshot, the back window shows the “conventional” webcast of the presentation. Streaming video and audio, at full resolution. The front window shows the SecondLife simulcast, with attendees sitting nicely in rows, watching a lower fidelity, smaller and distorted version of the same webcast.

Sure, in the SecondLife version, there was opportunity for interaction between participants. But that could have easily been added through a chat or IM group. And much of the interaction involved “how do I sit down?” and “how to I give my avatar breasts?” rather than discussing the presentation.

Much of that is a result of n00bs learning the environment, and that is to be expected. But I’ve been in several SecondLife sessions over the last week, and none were what I’d call compelling or innovative educational pedagogies.

I still don’t get SecondLife, as it is typically used for education. I’ll keep trying, though.

The National Geographic Ritual

The latest National Geographic came in the mail today. I find it a little ironic that a magazine that’s had such a strong bent toward showcasing the effects of global warming is printed on dead trees and trucked around the world to be delivered into our mailboxes, but whatever…

When I get a fresh new NG, I have a ritual I follow.

  1. act all giddy and excited, like a kid with a new present
  2. carefully peel the brown wrapper off, so as to not rip the precious cargo inside. mention a little louder than is necessary that it’s a National Geographic, so any observers don’t get any ideas about what kind of magazine I’m subscribing to that requires a brown wrapper…
  3. inhale. deeply. pause. aaaaaaaaaahhhh… the ink smell, mixed with the off-gassing paper. so, that’s why they kill trees and ship this stuff around the planet…
  4. peruse the cover. always an awesome photograph. try to figure out where the photo was taken. if feeling really geeky, try to figure out how they got the shot. if feeling really cocky, try to figure out if I could have gotten that shot. wonder what it would be like to work on a NG shoot…
  5. scan the topics listed on the cover. the ones obscuring the photograph.
  6. take 10-30 seconds to scan the table of contents. get an idea of what’s inside.
  7. flip past the Cialis/Levitra/Ensomnublis/Viagra/Erectomax ads that fill the first section of the magazine with multiple full-page spreads. gee, I wonder what the prime demographic for this magazine is…
  8. examine every single page, looking only at the photographs. repeat step 4 for each photograph. this will take an hour or two. wonder what the hell they were thinking when selecting at least 3 photos that should have been marked as “Reject” in Aperture. (the motion-blurred flying birds with blurry ice field in the background is the prime candidate this time around – they were trying to be artistic. it would have worked, had the pan managed to get the bird in sharp focus, but it didn’t…) The polar bear shaking off water is one of the best catches of this issue. wow. Knowing that the bear charged the photographer seconds after the shot was taken just makes it so much better. Some of the wide-angle shots of meltwater reservoirs on top of the ice are pretty amazing, too.
  9. if any articles look really interesting, go back and read them.
  10. wonder why NG isn’t just a photo magazine. by FAR the best part of the magazine. the articles are great, too, but they take up paper that would be better allocated to more photos…
  11. come back to the issue several times over the next month, slowly working through all articles, letters, sidebars. revisiting every photograph. wondering how freaking cool it would be to work on a NG shoot.
  12. put the magazine away for “safe keeping” never to open it again once the next one comes in.

As much as I love NG, I really think I’d prefer an online-only subscription. With access to high-resolution photographs and galleries, I’d be more than satisified. And it would save countless trees, prevent tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, conserve fossil fuels, etc…

WordPress Performance Tuning

My blog often has fits of sucktacular performance. After digging around, and bugging DreamHost support for some ideas, I’ve made some progress.

I had been running wp-cache to enable file-based caching, thinking that would help optimize performance of the site (fewer database calls should equal better performance) – except that DreamHost apparently uses NFS-mounted storage for accounts. As a result, filesystem access is a bit laggy, so the file-based caching was actually (apparently) slowing the site down (as suggested by 4+1 ways to speed up wordpress). Disabled wp-cache and set define('WP_CACHE', false); in wp-config.php

I also noticed that there were 2 requests for linked files that were returning 404 errors, which in turn trigger my fancy schmancy 404 page and so add significant lag to the page load. Turns out the OpenID Delegation plugin had bad references to openid.js and openid.css so I fixed that, and page loads are at least cosmetically snappier now.

One other modification I made was to (temporarily?) disable the “Similar Posts” plugin and sidebar display. I really like the functionality that provides, but it was adding too much processing time to generating individual post pages. It works by using the MySQL full text index on the blog posts table, which gets a bit slow with lots of posts and MyISAM tables (table-level locking and lots of extra queries means slower site responses). I’ll look into optimizing that a bit and re-enabling in the future.

Also, I had the Mandigo theme set to automatically rotate through a set of banner images, meaning WordPress was having to crunch through the blogbanner/wide directory itself in order to pick up a banner image. Instead, I just set up my .htaccess file to intercept the URL for the default Mandigo banner image, and Redirect it to rotator.php so it should be a bit better now.

It’s still not running as fast as I’d like, but it’s just a blog. I could always trim out more plugins and pick a simpler theme, but I’m pretty happy with the functionality I have at the moment. At least it’s performing better than Twitter…

Update: I turned off the General Stats widget (but left the plugin active) – there’s no need to count every word of every comment and post when displaying every page on the blog. That info is available on the Archives page, where it belongs. That removed several very heavy queries from the typical page generation load.  I also updated Mandigo, which mentioned some optimizations in the changelog. The blog feels snappy enough now for me to stop worrying for awhile…