To those of us who have been watching the Second Life blogosphere, the existence of the Environment Enhancement Project (EEP), which replaces Windlight, has been well-known for quite a while. After all, it’s been well-documented and extensively written about, and quite a few tutorials exist for it. Furthermore, after Firestorm’s 6.4.13.63251 release (regardless of people’s personal preference, Firestorm is the most popular third-party viewer for SL), practically every SL user now has the user interface to use EEP.

I won’t mince my words: I never liked the way the Sun looked in any of the existing windlights. Historically, the Sun in SL skies has always looked like a hexagon – blurry or relatively sharp. This made shooting sunsets or sunrises in SL a rather unappealing endeavour. Thankfully, EEP has allowed us to use our own textures for the Sun or the Moon. So, not only do we get to have a decent-looking sun in the sky, but also use a custom texture for a unique effect. As far as the Moon is concerned, we can depict a different moon phase simply by using a different texture. Also, EEP gives us the chance to set the duration of the day cycle. In these regards, EEP is considerably more powerful than Windlight’s implementation has been. However, there’s still room for improvement.

User-programmable Timers for Seasonal EEPs and daytime duration change

Consider a sim designer / owner who wishes to have a seasonal sim, with snow in the winter, different colours in the foliage for all the seasons, etc. They can add dedicated snow add-ons for various buildings and for terrain features. They can add icicles, apply different ground textures, and whatnot. However, this change won’t be complete without sky (and maybe even water) settings to match. Also, we know that, in RL, the duration of the daytime changes every day throughout the year, and this depends on the season and each location’s geographical latitude.

A contour plot of the hours of daylight as a function of latitude and day of the year.
A contour plot of the hours of daylight as a function of latitude and day of the year, using the most accurate models described in Sunrise equation. Latitude 40° N (approximately New York City, Madrid and Beijing) is highlighted for reference.Image credit: Cmglee on Wikipedia (original image here)

In RL, this change in daytime duration happens automatically as the earth rotates around itself and around the Sun. In SL, however, we don’t currently have a way to replicate this; instead, we need to do this by hand. Exactly the same applies to the change of seasons – we need to keep notes of when we want to change the season in our sim or parcel and, besides all the other work (changing trees’ textures accordingly, adding / removing snow caps and whatnot, water settings, and so on), we need to manually change the EEP day cycles. I believe there can be a better way. Namely, I’d like to see an enhancement to the current UI (I actually wouldn’t mind if it’d bring up a separate floater for this) that would allow the user to:

  1. Determine the duration and scheduling of the seasons (i.e. spring starts on date A and ends on date B; summer starts on date C and ends on date D; and so on);
  2. Determine a general day cycle for each particular season, which will be the prevalent day cycle;
  3. Determine whether the daytime duration should remain the same all through that particular season, or if they should change, as is the case in RL: if the user wants the daytime duration to change throughout the season, the system should allow the user to determine by how much (in minutes and seconds) and how often (in days).

Of course, the only way our ideas can stand a chance to become part of our SL experience is to submit them (in cases like this, as feature requests) to the Lab using its JIRA bug tracker, and this is precisely what I did. I filed a new feature request (BUG-230857), which I’ll be following closely and updating with further suggestions as to how such a UI could look and work.

Now, these are just the essential functions it should provide. There could be further enhancements; for instance, there could be an option to specify up to two or three extra sky and water settings to stand in as alternatives, so that the region or parcel could offer its visitors (regular or not) some sort of variety w.r.t. its weather. These alternative EEP settings could then be scheduled to appear in specific intervals, on specific dates, or even randomly.

User-programmable Moon Phases

The phases of the Moon as viewed looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere. Each phase would be rotated 180° if seen looking northward from the Southern Hemisphere. The upper part of the diagram is not to scale, as the Moon is much farther from Earth than shown here. Image credit: Orion 8 on Wikipedia (original image here)

In RL, we get to enjoy lunar (Moon) phases. Waxing or waning crescent or gibbous, new moon, full moon, blue moon, supermoon, even lunar eclipses. And not only that, there’s some variety even as the seasons change. So far, though, in SL, we haven’t had this pleasure. Only recently did EEP give us the chance to replace the default Moon texture with one of our choice. But still, it’s the same texture, and it doesn’t change as the days go by; we have to change it ourselves. So, I went and filed another feature request, specifically for this (BUG-230859). What I have in mind is an enhancement of the EEP UI to offer sim designer / owners the following abilities:

  1. Enable / disable moon phases – this could use the current EEP’s moon texture, overlaying a dark texture on it to depict how the moon looks in each phase;
  2. How often (in days) should the moon phase change;
  3. Inclination of the wax / wane texture’s Z-axis: so, it could be completely vertical, or at an angle (in degrees);
  4. Blue moons / Supermoons: The user should be able to determine the blue moon’s texture (which will override the current EEP’s moon texture), how much (in %) larger the supermoon should be in comparison to a regular full moon, and the timing of their appearance, i.e. how often (in increments of months, weeks, and days, i.e. X months, Y weeks, Z days) they should appear.

Even things like a 22° halo could be added, perhaps linked to the scheduling (specific or random) of a particular weather condition. Of course, since I filed these feature requests, I’m absolutely willing to help with ideas, even UI mock-ups.

Can you help?

Your feedback and ideas on these two JIRAs, as well as adding them to your watch list, would be greatly appreciated, as they would not only indicate interest from the user base, but could also offer ideas as to how these features can be implemented with a powerful, yet intuitive and easy-to-use, UI.

Yesterday, I found out that the Moles created a memorial for the late LL CEO Ebbe Altberg. It is located in the middle of a small, fir-covered islet in the Altberg region in Bellisseria. You can teleport directly there or, if you’re starting your journey from any of the nearby regions, you can moor your boat by the islet’s small cove and follow the stepped path to the small plateau where the memorial has been erected.

The Ebbe Altberg Memorial Islet, Altberg (Rated: Moderate)

No landing point has been set, so, at the end of this post, I’m giving you a landmark that takes you to the base of the stepped path. Once there, you see a bench made from tree logs, facing a large bronze statue of Ebbe’s Second Life avatar. The statue itself is placed on a small plaza made from boulders in the shape of the Second Life logo, and more specifically where the eye would be, and has a waterfall on one side behind it. Flowers are scattered on the plinth, which is surrounded by candles.

Ebbe Altberg’s Statue, Altberg (Rated: Moderate)

At the bottom of the plinth, a plaque, slanted upwards, reads:

Ebbe Altberg

1964 – 2021

Always in our hearts

Above the plaque, an open book has been sculpted on the plinth; on the left-hand page, there is Ebbe’s RL likeness, while on the page on the right one can read Patch Linden’s announcement of Ebbe’s passing.

Ebbe Altberg’s Statue, Altberg (Rated: Moderate)

It’s a touching, thoughtful move on behalf of the Lab’s personnel, which shows how much they valued Ebbe and recognised him as a true leader and a valued colleague and friend.

SLurl: Altberg (Rated: Moderate)

Flickr Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmVZCdxv

The late Ebbe Altberg at the 2015 Web Summit
The late Ebbe Altberg at the 2015 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland – Image Credit: Web Summit

The first weekend of June wasn’t a good one for Linden Lab, Second Life, or for anyone who cares about either of them. LL’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, passed away on Friday. His passing came as a shock to most people, although there was a certain amount of speculation, triggered the fact that he was largely absent from all sorts of social media during the past few months.

As we should expect, discussions as to who his successor should / could / will be, or – at least – what properties the new CEO should possess have already started to sprout like mushrooms on ageing trees in a damp forest. I can’t say such discussions are to my taste; for one, I think they started too soon, at a moment when others, closer to him, are still trying to deal with his passing. Furthermore, I find flaws in the more popular approaches, and the less said about the quality of discourse, the better. The popular argument says that the new CEO needs to be a long-time SL user, who has garnered a good deal of experience with the platform. The reasoning is that a CEO that is selected from the user base is somehow more likely to “get” Second Life than someone else.

I don’t agree with this point of view. The user base, much as many people like (I don’t) to call it a “community”, is actually extremely fragmented and consists of multiple subgroups, subcultures, and downright cliques, often with differing, or even conflicting, interests and goals. This, of course, means that there’s no guarantee that a user chosen from this SL subgroup will care for the other groups, or for the benefit of the company, its staff, or SL itself. Likewise, there’s absolutely no guarantee that this user will know how to run a company, how to plan and manage a single project, much less multiple concurrent ones, how to handle investors, the Press, and whatnot. Finally, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the “experienced SL user” will have any idea about how to be a leader. I, for example, don’t think I do.

Have a look at Ebbe’s tenure with LL: if anything, it demolishes the notion that extensive prior experience with SL is de riguer for someone to become a good LL CEO. Ebbe was by no means a “long-time SL user,” as he himself had admitted on several occasions. However, he was anything but oblivious to its existence and what people can do with(in) it. After all, he was a close friend of Jed Smith, former chairman of LL’s Board, he was an early beta user, and his own son had been a user of the Teen Grid.

Still, as I noted in my retrospective / tribute, his tenure, although certainly not perfect, was highly successful, and he rose to become LL’s most-respected and longest-serving CEO. In fact, many people, including yours truly, consider him as the best CEO LL ever had. But, since he wasn’t a “long-time SL user,” why was he successful? This comes down to two factors: the brief he was given, and his personal qualities. Of these, the brief is the most important – the qualities are determined and sought after the brief has been set.

But what is the brief? One needs to always keep in mind that what we, the users (i.e. the customers), may think is best for SL isn’t necessarily what the owners of the company want to do with it. Remember, a CEO is hired by the Board of Directors, answers to the Board, and can be fired by the Board. And the CEO is hired to carry out a mission – the brief. The CEO has goals to meet, and can be kicked out, with or without a golden parachute, for serious missteps: you just have to remember the unceremonious sacking of Steven K Lee by famous high-end maker of optics and photographic equipment Leica Camera AG in 2008. A similar example is how the problematic HP-Compaq merger masterminded by Carly Fiorina led to the Board ordering her to fall on her sword (she later went on to become a deplorable shill for the worst conservative moguls). So, while the CEO yields tremendous power over the company, and may reshape (or at least attempt to) the company according to his or her vision, even a CEO isn’t immune to the ire of the Board.

In previous times and in similar circumstances, we’d be expecting the new CEO, knowing pretty much that his or her mission would be to continue improving SL as best (s)he can, keep its balance books healthy, etc. But now, the Lab is no longer independent, but part of the portfolio of an investment group led by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. I’ll admit I know very little of their previous ventures and what they did with, or to, them.

I’ll be entirely open: in general, I’m very leery of investment groups and big takeovers. I’ve seen many investment groups and / or conglomerates treat their acquisitions the way a salvager treats cars. I’ve seen my investment groups and / or conglomerates come in, not knowing what they’ve acquired, what it does best, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and, in a drive to “maximise shareholder value” (the mantra of Milton Friedman, the dismal science’s Trofim Lysenko) and do so yesterday, ruin it and drive it to bankruptcy, near-bankruptcy, or infamy and ridicule. I’ve also seen starry-eyed, enthusiast investors with supposedly deep pockets step in, but fail, due to a lack of actual knowledge on how to run the company, due to overinvestment in money-pit pet projects, and / or due to a lack of meaningful funding.

This is why I didn’t share the widespread, quasi-obligatory enthusiasm (sincere or feigned) about LL’s acquisition by the aforementioned investors. Instead, I chose to hold out until I see what they’ll actually do, and I still stand by my decision and position, basking in my “party pooper” reputation.

Now, what Oberwager and Waterfield have added in their portfolio is a reasonably healthy, profitable, well-focused (after the axing of Creatorverse, dio, and Versu, the phasing out of Blocksworld and Patterns, and the sale of Desura and Sansar), company, with an admittedly small, but very dedicated and diverse, user base for its core product. Also, – thanks to Ebbe’s sharp business acumen, the Lab has an additional stream of revenue in the form of Tilia Pay. Ebbe’s tenure has also seen several crucial (many of them overdue) updates in SL’s technology and its infrastructure that make it look, work, and perform better and more reliably than before.

However, it’s a company that faces serious challenges. For starters, it needs to keep investing in several aspects of SL’s codebase (especially its 3D engine) as heavily as “AAA” game studios. Despite its relatively small workforce, it’s a high-maintenance company, because it needs very highly-skilled people. Here lies one of the most crucial questions: do Oberwager and Waterfield have the wherewithal to hire the necessary people and fund the necessary updates and upgrades? Do they have the willingness to fund them? Or are they going to be like Peter Livanos and the Papanicolaou brothers from Aston Martin’s Victor Gauntlett era?

And what do they want to do with SL? Will they tell the new CEO to build upon Ebbe’s considerable legacy and take SL further, or will they tell him / her to merely cut expenses, make the company look profitable, and then prepare it to be sold off to some other group of investors or, even worse, to some huge, creeptastic, company hell-bent on pleasing the rabid conservative nutjobs like Verizon or Facebook? I believe these are the questions that really matter, not whether it’ll be best to hire one of us, the users, or someone outside the company.

Little Santorini
Shades of Santorini, Nefeli – June 2021

Nefeli – this is the name of the island of which I’m about to tell you. Named thus after Nephele, the cloud nymph of Greek mythology. Created by Zeus from a cloud (νέφος – nephos – in Greek) in the image of Hera; mother of the Centaurs, and also of Phrixus and Helle, who both featured prominently in the myth of the Golden Fleece.

Being Greek, I’m always interested in regions and builds inspired by my country; this part of the world is woefully under-represented in Second Life, as buildings, trees, shrubs, bushes, and even geological features that are found here are very few and far between on the Marketplace and in mainstores, and what I do find is usually disappointing. Lately, however, a few new places have started popping up, featuring Greek-themed parts that are of a higher calibre than was the norm. Nefeli is one of them, and I think it’s safe to say it captures the essence and morphology of the Greek islands better than most similarly-themed regions I’ve seen so far.

The Seagull
The Gull, Nefeli – June 2021

Nefeli is a homestead owned by Effy Nova and Frenchy25 (frenchy25 Resident). It’s designed by Effy, who adores the Greek islands and wanted to create a beautiful vacation place in SL to unwind, as the Covid-19 pandemic and the travel advisories stemming from it made it impossible for her to enjoy her summer vacation in RL for a second year in a row.

As you’ll see for yourselves, it’s very carefully terraformed, and with terrain textures, rocky features, and plants hand-picked to resemble an actual Greek beachside neighbourhood. In my eyes, this whole place bears a striking resemblance to the beaches along the road that takes you from Vouliagmeni to Cape Sounio. Don’t expect Malibu-style bleached blonde sands; the terrain here is a reddish tan, and there are gnarled rocks surrounding the beaches – just like the real thing.

The Main Street at Nefeli
The Main Street, Nefeli – June 2021

When you arrive at the landing point, you find yourself facing east, on an east-west dirt road. To your right, there are some houses, what seems to be a restaurant (as one would surmise from the waiter exiting its front door) and entertainment establishments.

The Dock
The Dock, Nefeli – June 2021

To the left, there’s a rocky beach, separated from the road with a short wall; at the western end of the beach, there is a long wooden dock where a few humble boats are moored. Behind you, you’ll find the Voir Gallery, where Effy and Frenchy exhibit their favourite images of the place, chosen among those submitted to its Flickr Group.

The Voir Gallery at Nefeli
The Voir Gallery, Nefeli – June 2021

Further back (to the west) is a fence with a gate leading to one of the island’s four sandy beaches. If you walk to the east and exit the neighbourhood, a small, cute, Santorini-style group of houses, with the obligatory blue-domed church is only a short walk to the north. Far to the south-east, you’ll find what looks like a stone-built chapel atop a rocky hill.

One of the beaches on Nefeli Island
Nefeli – June 2021

As for the west end of the island, it’s dominated by another rocky hill that you can climb by means of stone stairsteps; at the top, you will find an arch where you can rest for a while – and on the south end of the hill, you can find a statue of Nefeli. Finally, beyond the hill, there’s a beach with a lovely gazebo right where the waves crash.

To be completely honest, words don’t really do this wonderful little place justice. Every part of it is filled with lovely little details, creating lots of beautiful vignettes to tickle many a SL shutterbug’s fancy, as if the landscaping and architectural features weren’t already enticing enough. It will remain open at least throughout the summer, so you have some time to visit and savour its beauty.

SLurl: Nefeli (rated: Moderate)

Official Flickr Group: Nefeli

Flickr Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmW224zq

Ebbe Altberg, 1964-2021
Credit: Linden Research, Inc.

A few hours ago, Patch Linden announced the sad news of the passing of Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Research, Inc.; sad news for all of us who care about Second Life, as he had earned the title of the best CEO Linden Lab has ever had, and this is no exaggeration. When he arrived in February 2014, he found the company and its flagship product in disarray.

His predecessor, Rod Humble (an Electronic Arts alumnus), had burnt many bridges of communication and collaboration with Third-Party Viewer developers. Although some PR stunts (such as an appearance on Draxtor Despres’ show) were employed to make him seem approachable and user-friendly, his tenure was marked by a deterioration of the relationship between the users and the company; his handling of the (in retrospect, mostly sensible) 2013 ToS changes was a massive PR fiasco, both internally, as many content creators became enraged, not entirely rightly) and externally, as it led to hostile announcements and (really quite abusive, if not borderline illegal) bans by CGTextures (now Textures.com), Renderosity, and Turbosquid.

Under Humble, the ToS change was preceded by the acquisition of Desura, which did nothing to help LL or SL. Patterns and Blocksworld didn’t fare particularly well. They were, in essence, pet projects that stretched the company’s resources thin. Employee morale was eroded. Furthermore, just like Rosedale and Kingdon before him, Humble didn’t bother to handle the chronic problem of how the ToS and Community Standards were interpreted, applied, and enforced – for many years, this was patchy, sketchy, and often arbitrary and riddled with suspicions of favouritism; there were groups of trolls that harassed and abused other people for years with complete impunity and immunity.

Ebbe was exactly the kind of person LL needed. First of all, he had nothing to do with the AAA game studios. He was, as he referred to himself, a “left-brain / right brain kind of person” who had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, US with a degree in Fine Arts and concentration in Computer Applications. While everyone in the IT industry knows what Second Life is, not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Ebbe was. He saw potential in it. He liked what its users did and do with(in) it. And he set out to enable them rather than manipulate them and “whale” them.

From the very beginning, he brought a fresh breath of openness and honesty in corporate communications, speaking in a normal, non-condescending, non-patronising, manner. He often came in-world to discuss with people, either at major events, both internal and external (like the annual VWBPE conferences) or casually. He set up a series of town hall-style meetings, “Meet the Lindens” events, in which he actively encouraged the team to get in touch with the user base, etc. He embraced the annual SL Birthday events and made sure he was there, and the Lab Chat sessions (which later evolved into the Lab Gab) became a bit of an institution in LL’s communications.

His openness, though, did cause some unrest once: at a Third-Party Viewer meeting in 2014 (video below; skip to 1:39:00), he mentioned in passing that the Lab were indeed working on a new virtual world (Sansar). This was picked up and blown out of proportion, causing many people, including popular and highly-regarded bloggers, to speculate that this would be the end for SL. As things evolved, SL is still around, and Sansar has been sold off – a rather hard decision, I must say.

Even amidst all the rumours about how “SL 2.0” (Sansar) would “kill off” SL, he fully supported Oz Linden’s team and their continued efforts to improve and further develop the ageing virtual world platform with major technical updates, and never hesitated to step up to the plate and stand up for his employees in the face of angry users.

When communicating SL and Sansar to the Press, he showed genuine enthusiasm and confidence in his company’s products and in the users that give them life and richness. He promoted SL and Sansar, without the ridiculous overhyping and overpromising Philip Rosedale became known for. His sharp business acumen shone as he leveraged the Lab’s years of know-how in handling micro-payments, micro-transactions, and virtual tokens to create Tilia Pay, a subsidiary that provides additional revenue for the Lab. He also guided the company very carefully through its acquisition process.

Ebbe Altberg (second from right) speaking at the November 2015 Web Summit, held in Dublin, Ireland; the other panelists are (from left to right) Oren Frank, Nathalie Nahai, and Rana el Kaliouby – Image credit: Web Summit

Finally, he had the strength and determination to swiftly gut the various troll gangs with targeted disciplinary actions. So, he forced them out of SL and its web presences, discouraged the troll gang leaders’ followers, and marginalised them to the point where some of the most notorious abusers have fallen silent, while others have lost their power, connections, and legitimisation – hopefully for good.

In all, Ebbe reversed many bad (and very deeply-rooted) policies of the past, rebuilt trust between SL’s users and the company, brought about many significant technical improvements (project Bento, the move of SL’s infrastructure into the cloud, animesh, and EEP), and created an environment that encourages collaboration rather than suspicion. Very few leaders in any industry are capable of doing that.

Prior to joining the Lab, he had already enjoyed a long, successful career with Microsoft (as Product Unit Manager), Ingenio (as Chief Product Officer), Yahoo! (VP Head of Audience, EMEA and SVP Media Engineering), and BranchOut (COO) (source: Ebbe Altberg’s LinkedIn profile).

In recent months, he has been patently absent from social media, which has caused quite a stir and worry. The last time I remember him appearing in public was when Oz Linden retired earlier this year. Despite his illness, his dedication and determination weren’t diminished at all. LL and SL are in a better position now, thanks to his enthusiasm, dedication, diligence, nous, and hard work. He will be sorely missed, and his successor has a lot to live up to.

I’d like to close this sad piece by extending my deepest condolences and sympathies to his family, his friends, and his colleagues. All of us who care about SL owe him a lot and we’ll miss him even more.