From the recent movie "The Martian". Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

From the recent movie “The Martian”. Image credit: 20th Century Fox. Please click on the image for full-size version (opens in new tab / window).

The discovery of flowing water on Mars, along with the theatrical release of the movie “The Martian“, caused a wave of renewed enthusiasm and hope for a manned mission to the red planet. But I think this discovery is actually more likely to put paid to any prospect of manned exploration of the planet.

On 28 September 2015, NASA confirmed what had been known among scientists for about forty years now, i.e. that liquid water flows on Mars. The surface of the red planet’s north pole contains ice made up of water by 70% and with a total volume of 1.6 cubic kilometers, with about the same volume being contained in the south pole. To give you a little perspective, Greenland’s ice cap contains 2.8 cubic kilometers of ice.

So no, that’s not really news, not by a long shot. Many researchers believe that the northern plains of Mars were covered by an ocean whose depth was some hundred meters, perhaps the same size as the arctic ocean. The findings of the various rovers sent by the US to Mars, and especially the abundance of deuterium, tend to support the hypothesis that, in its ancient years, Mars had water in abundance. Of course, the existence of liquid water on today’s Mars makes it more likely for some indigenous form(s) of life to exist on the planet. The probes that have explored the planet so far (and still explore it) have proven it is not exactly as hostile to life as we once thought.

All right, then. Now, the proven existence of water, the increased likelihood of the existence of life on Mars, and the increased interest, due to NASA’s internet-centred PR and the hype of “The Martian” could be considered by some as strong enough factors to bring the United States’ comatose manned space programme back to life, and possibly be the catalyst for the long- and oft-proposed manned mission to the red planet. Well… Not exactly, and I’ll explain why.

Vague promises, but, when money talks, bullshit walks

Already, in the summer of 2014, we had the National Research Council’s report “Pathways to Exploration – Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration“, which was a carefully considered, “balanced” report, neither outright stating that the United States shall be henceforth earthbound, nor announcing any ambitious, daring plans. After all, given that the United States, in step with the rest of the world, prefers to waste taxpayers’ money on bailing out irresponsible, profligant, outright criminal banksters instead of paving the road to a future, it makes far greater sense for the American manned spaceflight programme to remain in a vegetative state, setting vague targets, conveniently placed somewhere in the distant future, with an horizon of more than two decades. So, both Washington and NASA are happy: NASA’s bureaucracy survives, and Washington gets to sort-of maintain some kind of sense of national pride for the plebes; and, to top it all off, no government runs the risk to have to commit to something that will be done during its tenure.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama.

The logo of the Constellation Programme, which has been killed off by US President Barack Obama (click on image for larger version – opens in new tab / window).

The Obama administration killed off the Constellation programme, which aimed for a return to the Moon by 2020, and the Space Shuttle. Since then, the US manned space programme is, as I said earlier, in a coma. NASA follows the “flexible path”, i.e. the development of technologies that might be useful for missions to a nearby asteroid or for missions whose destination lies in the vicinity of the Moon, but everything is written so that no American government will ever have to commit to any expenditure. This was confirmed on 8 October 2015, with the release of the report titled “NASA’s Journey to Mars – Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration“. All this “creative ambiguity” is because Washington is completely averse to the idea of spending the billions of dollars manned missions to the Moon, or to Mars, would require. Of course, they have already wasted a trillion dollars on the jalopy known as the F-35 Lightning II, and they keep on allowing the 1% to effectively not pay taxes, but these things are easier to sell to the voters, as jingoism and the idea that the rich deserve more than other human beings sound more “natural” to the plebes.

Of course, even Baldrick from Blackadder the Third can understand that, without a significant increase in NASA’s budget, the space agency is doomed to linger in our planet’s orbit, even when  (or, I should say, if) the Orion is finally built. The harsh, bitter truth is that a manned mission to Mars will cost more than what the entire International Space Station has cost so far; its realisation shall require years, if not decades, of hard, committed, continuous, dedicated work, while the risk of both failure and – yes – casualties is significant.

And this is where the public sentiment comes into play. How willing is the American (first and foremost) public to accept the idea that they could spend a few hundred billions of dollars on a project that might be riddled with problems and cost lives, and whose benefits are not easily understandable by the average taxpayer?  Yes, I mentioned that the US has already spent a trillion on a turd that can’t fly, can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t hold its own in a dogfight (the F-35) and whose software is riddled with bugs and horrible security holes, but hey, Faux News’ talking heads can easily tell the plebes it will eventually “kill bad guys”, and this is a benefit that everyone considers tangible. On the other hand, the scientific benefits and other from a manned space mission are not as “immediate”. Yes, I know the American and international public loves space, but in an anodyne, lazy way, i.e. with Facebook “likes” and following space exploration-related accounts on Twitter.

Let’s be blunt: A manned space programme is far from becoming reality, especially in our times that are saddled with geopolitical and financial instability. A manned spaceflight to Mars requires a very well-specified plan regarding the kind of rockets, spacecraft etc. will be needed. And it also requires an awful lot of money, to the tune of $400 billion, and I think this is a conservative estimate. Those who can read between the lines understand that NASA pretends it can send humans to Mars with its current budget. But with current funds, adjusting for inflation, the summer 2014 report concluded that, until 2040, NASA will get only $100 billion for Mars-related work. That’s peanuts.

So, what do we make of “The Martian”? Well, it was an OK movie, which certainly helped get the hopes of the Mars-loving community up. But, every two or three years we see the same movie in re-runs. The existence of water on Mars is announced, then we are reassured that manned missions to Mars are just around the corner, just wait and see – a rinse and repeat process for a crowd with a goldfish memory.

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This topic keeps on giving and, even though I’m a big proponent of anonymity and pseudonymity online, there are things I need to tell all of you. Be aware that you might find my tone aggressive and take it personally. If you do take it personally, I’ll have to say to you what someone else told me: “I’m sorry you feel this way”.

First of all, most of you don’t give a damn about anonymity and pseudonymity online, and you don’t really care about freedom of expression. What matters to you is the “impressive” pseudonymity of your own online persona (in other words, your online trademark or brandname), which you can’t do without; without it, not even you would bother to read your own writings.

Now, let’s suppose for a moment that a social network that really allowed freedom of expression and pseudonymity actually existed. You wouldn’t use it. What most of you people want is a medium in which you, and only you, are pseudonymous, while everyone else is transparent, especially to you. How narcissistic is that?

As for the NSA, the GCHQ, the Mossad and whatever other secret services crop up in the discourse on privacy, let me tell you one thing: They don’t give a flying fuck about you. You can bet your bottom dollar that not a single millisecond of your online or offline existence occupies any space in their permanent storage. To them, you are useful only as some sort of statistic reference.

The same goes for your “sensitive private data”; they don’t give a flying fuck. Unless you think you’re the only brony with a massive whale-like penis equipped with Prince Albert piercings chained to your pierced nipples. Or unless you think you’re the only Mormon who faps to photos of iguanas mating. Or unless you think you’re the only SL-famous fashionista, blogger, or what have you.

Facebook doesn’t care much about your name, either. What Facebook doesn’t want is to become a medium that allows freedom of expression and pseudonymity. In which case, should anyone of you get in their radar, their “delete” button is only half an inch away from their finger, so you can be an example to others. And you can be sure this approach works astonishingly well for Facebook.

If, however, any of these “fine people” decide, for whatever reason, to actually give a fuck about you, you can rest assured they’ll nab you, no matter what pseudonym you choose to post your stuff on social media.

But really, the only ones who really give a fuck about you are the behavioural marketing analytics guys. But their models are so fucked up that, even if they didn’t give a fuck about you, it’d be exactly the same.

No, you are not necessarily spied or snitched upon. Your nickname is so crappy that it triggers a few hundred thousand algorithms, all over the planet. If your nickname was something like “Jennifer Smith”, you’d have been most likely under the radar. But that’s not really what you want. What you want is a brandname, what you want is a pseudonym that will differentiate you from the others.

Every language has a finite variety of first and last name combinations. If your chosen pseudonym is significantly different from the norm, you’ll become fodder for the most basic data mining on this planet.

Finally, people have been telling you about the risks from the use of proprietary, non-distributed media. So far, you (and even yours truly) have consistently showed you don’t care what they say. And even if you do care, the person next to you doesn’t. And you can’t have a social medium without the “person next to you”.

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-LH

NOTICE: The article below deals with adult topics and fantasies and contains fetish imagery. If you are offended by such topics and / or are not a legal adult, I suggest you leave this instant.

The StG (Surrender to Gravity) Neuropuppet

The StG (Surrender to Gravity) Neuropuppet, an RLV attachment designed by Sian Wytchwood; a blog post by her prompted me to discuss certain points, as well as certain aspects of sexual exploration within SL. Please click on the image for the full-size version.

Back in 2014, Sian Pearl (of Chariot and MetaTheodora fame) had announced the release of an RLV mask / spine / drone control system named the Neuropuppet; the initial design was done by Dreampaint Loon – in fact, it was her “Remote Drone Rig”. Seeing that I was experimenting with RLV scripts and drone communications bulbs at the time, she graciously asked me to provide the scripts for the whole system.

The second, more "tame" version of the Neuropuppet." Please click on the image for the full-size version.

The second, more “tame” version of the Neuropuppet.” Please click on the image for the full-size version.

So, in September 2014, the Neuropuppet was launched through a sub-brand named Surrender to Gravity. It sold quite well, but eventually it was withdrawn from the marketplace because Sian didn’t really feel at home with its concept and semiotics.

Dreampaint Loon's "Remote Drone Rig", which ended up becoming the "Surrender to Gravity Neuropuppet"

Dreampaint Loon’s “Remote Drone Rig”, which ended up becoming the “Surrender to Gravity Neuropuppet”. Image courtesy of Dreampaint Loon. Original picture on DeviantArt (requires log-in, as it is rated “mature”). Please click on the picture for the full-size version.

However, after many IMs we both received, the decision was made to re-release it as a fatpack containing both versions, the original, more ominous-looking one as designed by Dreampaint Loon, and the second version, which is more “tame”. Both versions consist of rigged (the spine) and non-rigged mesh parts, and they come, once again, with copy and modify permissions.

Please note that the Neuropuppet is materials-enhanced, i.e. it features normal and specular maps. So, unless your computer is very old and cannot support the Advanced Lighting Mode without slowing down to a crawl, ditching the normal and specular maps in favour of “classic” shininess is not advised, because, at least in my eyes, it just doesn’t do justice to Sian’s original mesh.

Sadly, there is very little time for me or Sian to provide any meaningful customer support. However, if you are so inclined, you can re-script it to your liking, especially when it comes to the RLV controls. You can acquire the Neuropuppet fatpack here. There is also a demo version, if you want to try it on before you buy.

Even if you opt to not use the RLV scripts, I think the Neuropuppet will make a worthy addition to your cyberpunk / sci-fi wardrobe and will help enhance your roleplay.

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-LB

VWBPE logoYesterday, at VWBPE’s Second Life auditorium, Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg (Ebbe Linden in-world) gave the opening keynote. The auditorium was packed – at various points, there were up to 170 people in-world with their avatars. Mal Burns recorded the speech and uploaded it to his YouTube channel so that it can be watched even by those who were unable to attend. As had happened last year, Gentle Heron was hard at work transcribing Mr. Altberg’s speech, and there was an interesting Q&A afterwards, with people from the audience having a chance to ask questions directly; I must give Mr. Altberg kudos for handling this task with great aplomb, and for his relaxed, approachable attitude towards the users who came to the venue to listen to him and ask about things they were interested in, w.r.t. Second Life and the next-generation virtual world platform that Linden Lab is developing.

Ebbe Altberg, Linden Lab's CEO.

Ebbe Altberg, Linden Lab’s CEO.

Below, I’m giving some of the main points that attracted my interest during Mr. Altberg’s speech – both from the main speech and the Q&A:

Education:

  • More than 300 organisations are benefitting from discounts for educators and non-profits;
  • The combined capabilities of 3D graphics, simulation, etc. that virtual worlds provide are a strong element for improving learning and and teaching;
  • Educators have shared many success stories;
  • There is no intention on behalf of Linden Lab to increase prices or remove the discount;
  • On the contrary, LL seeks to make usage of SL for educational purposes more affordable.

It becomes clear that LL realise that the decision made during Mark Kingdon’s tenure to remove the educator and non-profit discount was a mistake, and that, if they want to maintain a leading position in the virtual world market for educators and non-profits, they must never repeat it.

Second Life:

  • LL are looking to improve the new user experience, including what Mr. Altberg referred to as “entry points”;
  • “SL is not going anywhere”;
  • LL understands that it needs to continue working hard on Second Life if it wants to maintain a market leader position. References to technical improvements that are currently being worked on by the Lab were made, such as:
    • Chat reliability;
    • Performance and stability fixes;
    • SLurl optimisation;
    • Avatar-related improvements;
  • Regarding the oft-discussed issue of tier, Mr. Altberg mentioned that LL charge for tier, but the “tax” they get from transactions (such as marketplace sales) is minimal – if they were to reduce “property tax” (tier), they’d have to increase “sales tax”;
  • During 2014, LL paid out over 60 billion US dollars to people using SL for their commercial presence;
  • They are looking to make cashing out faster for customers in “good standing”;
  • LL is keen to keep money laundering completely out of its system;
  • Regarding mentor programmes, Mr. Altberg’s position was that the Lab is not considering reviving them, because many mentors had their own agendas, and this caused serious problems.

Next-generation virtual world platform

  • Internally, it is called “Next Generation Platform”, not SL 2.0, and it is highly unlikely that SL 2.0 will be adopted as a commercial name for it;
  • Progress on its development is going well;
  • Over thirty developers are working on it;
  • They want to surpass SL’s 1.1 million active user ceiling and have considered the reasons SL maxed out at that point;
  • Mobile support is something the Lab wants to provide from the outset;
  • They want to provide better scalability: Whereas in SL an event can fall apart when more than 30 avatars are in the region, the Lab seeks to provide the ability for users to host events for tens of thousands of participants;
  • LSL will not be used in the next-generation platform: Instead, C# is the language of choice, thus making it easier for existing programmers to work on the new platform;
  • In the beginning, they will invite people who are adept at using Autodesk’s 3D application Maya, which was chosen as an internal tool for initial content creation for its power;
  • As the next-generation platform becomes ready to launch, more tools (like Blender) will be supported;
  • The entry age limit will be lowered to 13 years, as “there is no legal difference between 13 and 16”;
  • New avatars will be used;
  • There are plans to support multiple identities under one account (like the master account proposal), diminishing the need for alts;
  • It also seems that the Lab is planning to make SL a subset of the next-generation platform rather than ditch it: “I think of SL as a portion of the next gen platform. SL could be created on top of the platform we are creating. Less world, more platform”;
  • Land will be much larger;
  • Voice and 3D audio will be available;
  • Physics for vehicles will be much more sophisticated, and the Lab is currently working with a third-party that will provide the engine.

In all, it was an extremely informative and useful speech, which confirms the Lab’s commitment to building upon the experience it has gained from developing and providing Second Life, does away with the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) concerning the future of SL once the next-generation platform is released, and also shows that the new platform will be a great improvement over SL.

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See also:

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-Lp

Renowned SL artist Bryn Oh announced that her new full sim installation titled Lobby Cam will open at Immersiva on Sunday, March 29. Her builds have often incorporated parts of her real life artwork. In this preview video, they’re prominently featured for the first two minutes, showing us how her art in both the physical and the virtual medium is connected.

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Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-Lk