Thursday, June 28, 2007

Now for the Seedier Side of Second Life

This is actually Part 2 of 2. Read the earlier post first.

Murky Waters - The Law of Prohibited Fantasies

Closely related to the idea of whether an avatar has legal standing is whether an avatar can commit a crime. Corporations can commit crimes, although they're artificial entities, but you can't put a corporation in jail. You can, however, put a human in jail for things done in the virtual world by an avatar of his or her own creation. It's getting dicier now that European countries – Germany, in particular – are considering the prosecution of virtual ageplay on SL, even without the involvement of actual children. Such conduct would appear unlawful in Australia, too, but apparently not the US.

As everyone now knows, SL is being used to make connections for the real life trafficking of real life child pornography. Few are surprised. Linden is reportedly cooperating with authorities in Germany and at one poijnt said its new policy was to ban not only underage users but any depiction by adults of sexual acts involving avatars who look underage. Meanwhile Linden is on record stating that it knows it has no effective way to ban underage players without age verification. They're looking to sim owners to police their own. Let's see how that's working out.

In the wake of recent revelations, the Group Charter for the 900 member group "Hunter High Roleplay," which until recently anyone could join and led to the formation of a number of other underage role-playing subgroup, was revised to reads as follows: "Due to Roblin Lindens (sic) comments stating that any type of under 18 [role play] being punishable, and people like sljoe coming in and filming players at Hunter without consent for media purposes, I've closed Hunter for now. I cannot risk losing my account which is how I support my family. I'd consider reopening as a college in the future, but will avoid venues of a sexual nature while the moral police decide weather (sic) it is acceptable for consenting adults to act out common fantasys (sic). I'm sorry it has come to this."

Weeks after the controversy arose, all of the ageplay related groups remained searchable. During this period, we visited what appeared to be a sim that solicits age play. It was an accident. We meant to visit the SL Bar Association, founded by Benjamin Noble, an articulate avie who is a lawyer in real life and has his own SL law blog, VirtuallyBlind. He says he's usually at the in-world offices of the SLBA. We went there twice, but no one was home. No visitors even. We left a message, which went unanswered a bit too long. Bored, we started flying around.

Next door another sim was bursting with activity. We were curious. We wandered over. We found them in the groups list: "The City of Lost Angel's (sic)," billed as "A Dark Rolepaly\Combat\Sex Community." We read the info to see who's invited: "Vampires, werewolves, predators, crazies, homeless poeple, druggies, whores and gagsters, schoolgirls, street people...all are welcome."

Schoolgirls? As in Hunter High? Does this mean the group, which has many interrelated sims and this one alone listed over 1300 members, solicits ageplay? We were not members, but we found it easy to use our camera controls to slip into the bleak brick fortress and sit ourselves down somewhere inside a fortress which only appears impenetrable and hangs imposibly high in the sky. For a little while, until it seemed we were going to be eaten alive and quickly teleported home, we wandered through rivers of blood, walls of fire, and encountered just a few of the dozens of players inside the sim's darkly ritualistic setting. We were there only a few minutes, not long enough to navigate our way to anything probative, one way or the other.

Later, we pinged Founder Suzanna Soyinka and asked her some questions. You be the judge.

Me: In light of the new policies and legal issues concerning the depiction of minors in SL, do you think you will have a problem soliciting "schoolgirls" to join your City of Lost Angel's group? I mean, "girl" is a term reserved for underage characters, or those who act underaged, is it not?

Suzanna: I don't allow under age players. Pedophilia is my line in the sand. Anyone even appears to cross it I ban them.

Me: Of course. But what about players who "act" underage.

Suzanna: They don't. The rules are clear. We've had two child players in the entire history of [the City of Lost Angel's (sic)]... One moved on because we're not friendly to that kind of play. The other aged their avatar to something legal. People are well aware of my prejudice in the area.

Me: So... who do you intend to attract by using the term "schoolgirls"?

Suzanna: Dunno thats been there for 9 months, I'll happily take it out... I wrote that description nearly a year ago and hadn't even realized I'd put schoolgirls in there til you mentioned it.

Me: How many members do you have, adding up all your affiliated groups?

Suzanna: 8,213. That was last week's count (as of May 17).

Me: You have any more thoughts about recent scandals? Has it affected your groups at all? Police queries? Queries about the thresholds of legality of depicting things, even if everyone involved is of age. Also, problems with people sharing real world child porn pics thru contacts made on SL in age play areas. Leading to the recent outright ban.

Suzanna: Have there been recent scandals? ... Like I said, not an issue I care about really. If they're banning child porn traffickers I say more power to them... The Lindens know me very well. If something gets past me, they'll let me know. And I have 48 player staffers.

Me: Thanks for your time and for chatting.

My conclusion is, Linden is still not prohibiting groups from using language which would appear to solicit avies for age-related sex play. Are Soyinka's players engaging in it or not? Dunno. What's a "schoolgirl"? Is it possible that Soyinka, as successful as she is, is as naive as she seems?

Update from SLJoe, the avie fronting the real world journalist vilified by Hunter High, whose investigations led to the discovery of real world child pornography trafficking inside SL: "There's more to come. We're still investigating." Towards the end of May, he said we should look for more video disclosures on, which was slated to go live on June 1. We've been checking back, but no relevant videos have appeared. Meanwhile, his site contains a disappointingly high number of spelling and punctuation errors. (What's up with all this bad spelling?) There's other stuff posted there, but not the promised goods.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tales from Second Life

As some of you know, I have an avatar in Second Life. She has a writing job there, a store, and her own blog, called TheLemonPrincess. She also freelances for The Avastar. Sometimes she needs an outlet for her writing that isn't connected with her book store or her fiction and is too long or involved for The AvaStar, so she asks me to post it here, under my own name. Since it's about law, which I know a few things about, I've obliged. So here it is.

Do Avatars Have Standing?

In his 1974 book, environmentalist Christopher Stone asked, "Do Trees Have Standing?" He said reality is created mostly by the language we use to describe it. So if trees had legal standing, like people do, forests could sue to protect themselves from destruction. But trees -- like avatars -- are not reified. They can't sue. Yet at the same time, corporations hold the elevated legal status of "personhood," because our legal system grants such rights to them. It's good for commerce, and commerce is more sacred than religion.

(Really. Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution, known as the Commerce Clause, is in the first meaty bit of our national scripture and the part that deals with freedom of religion is tucked away in the amendments they passed four years later, when they decided to protect individuals from the inevitable nasty side of the government they created originally. Also, they started to think, how well will commerce profit the owners if the peons of the world aren't guaranteed odds decent enough to make them want to play the house's game? So they amended the constitution by sticking on The Bill of Rights in 1791, which contains the part that stops the goverment from messing with you if you want to practice your religion. It came afterwards.)

Human owners of entities like SL are shielded from responsibility from all sorts of things that the rest of us mere mortals have to answer to, because we live in a great country which favors commerce and you can't have it all gunked up by people who would be adverse to novelties they might later have to be personally responsible for, to the point that it creates economic paralysis. Enter the corporate veil. So where does that leave the lowly avatar? What does Drivel Pivets do when things don't quite turn out the way Second Life's autocratic owners represent? Virtually, nothing. He ceases to exist, and the bumbling man behind the curtain soldiers on.

But it aint all bad. Despite the fact that not long ago, the Second Life City of Neufreistadt deleted from its constitution a provision which would have established a judiciary, we were reminded that there are judiciaries in the real world and we already are subject to some pretty good law. Says avatar Navets Potato (pictured at right in his SL office): "I have been talking to a bunch of people about arbitration and court systems here in SL. I am not all that enthused by the in-SL court system, but like the arbitration idea lot. Or mediation." Navets Potato navigates both worlds, and his SL profile references his real world law firm. Meanwhile Potato confirms he's getting RL clients from contacts made in SL, to the tune of $7,000 US in two weeks, as one article reported.

Enter Pennsylvania lawyer and former SL resident Mark Bragg. Last year he sued Linden Research, Inc. and Philip Rosedale for confiscating his avatar's property when it closed his account for his clever if naughty method of auctioning of SL land. Until recently it was unresolved whether Bragg could sue Rosedale (aka Philip Linden), and whether fraud would trump the site's Terms of Service (TOS) agreement. His only bankable remedy depended on beating the arbitration clause. Pricey arbitration, not the customer-friendly kind (>$5,000 just to file!) and you had to go all the way to San Francisco to do it. "Economically pointless," said Bragg's lawyer, Jason Archinaco, as it would be for most consumers. His case awaited ruling on several issues before it could go forward.

In a March 27 filing, Bragg quoted Rosedale's recent reaffirmation of the notion that SL residents acquire genuine property rights, i.e., that they aren't just playing a game: "You know, people need to own their own things, and they need to be able to do with them what they like, and that's part of the basic appeal."

(BTW, difficulties deciphering what owners' rights actually are explains, in part, why the original sale of virtual Amsterdam in SL fell through. Reportedly buyers weren't familiar with key concepts -- such as having the vendors on the sim retain their rights.)

So is Linden Pied Pipering its users into a dangerous legal riptide? Yes. In an interview published on May 17, Rosedale said something new, and contradictory: "What we are really selling you is computation. We are selling you CPU core. If you buy a 16-acre piece of land, which is about four city blocks, what you are renting is one processor." A processor which can be taken down, or collapse, at any time. Apparently, this intellectual property thing is just an illusion. Not a reality.

Archinaco says this: "What they don't want you to know is they're moving to liquidity. With arbitration, they have confidentiality. They can keep quiet about moving away from land value." In other words, the eventuality of letting outsiders create their own land is like letting anyone print their own money. "People's so-called property rights evaporate but they can't just do that," opines Archinaco, who has no active SL avatar. "While the [Bragg] case stays open they're being nice to everyone."

Heroclitis presaged Linden Labs and Philip Rosedale when he said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Greek philosophy doesn't go over that well with the courts. On May 30 the federal court in Pennsylvania ruled on two early motions by Linden in the Bragg case: first, that Philip Rosedale's (alleged) misleading statements mean he can be personally sued in Pennsylvania, i.e., the federal court has personal jurisdiction over him; and second, that Linden's TOS arbitration provision can't be enforced, based on all sorts of unfair, one-sided, adhesionary conditions. The case will now go forward. Here's the decision:

So there. Thank you Mr. Bragg.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Few Pics from my Cell Phone

Babu, our cat.
Chesapeake Bay Bridge Fells Point, Baltimore

I couldn't help it. They were just too good. Now I can clean up the SD card.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We Won!!!

Some of you may know that I have an avatar in the virtual reality game, Second Life (SL). Her name is Babu Writer, and here is a link to her blog, TheLemonPrincess. Babu and her creative partner, Flyw Jie, are working on a book bearing this title. Last weekend they (we) participated in SL's first-ever book fair. And guess what!

The Lemon Princess booth won $1000L for best booth display. For the next few weeks you can still visit it at The Book Publishing Village in Wallaby. During the fair there was real-life (RL) press coverage in some trade publications, and there was even a story on BBC4.

As a result of doing well at the Book Fair, on Sunday evening Babu Writer was invited to read some of her poetry at The Blue Angel, SL's hottest poetry venue, and she did. It was well received. Babu was tagged by a RL editor on the way out. Is something more real in the works? One hopes.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Thursday's Poetry Reading a Great Success

Wow, what a night. I have never seen a poetry audience so attentive. There were about 70 people at our event at the Creative Alliance Thursday night. The theater was set up like a club, tables set with votice candles up in front, and rows of seats in the back.

The poets had seats along the side of the stage. Chris introduced the first poet, each of us introduced the next one. Eleven of us read poems, Chris included. Everyone looked so hot, and every single one of us was terrific!

Upstairs in the gallery guests enjoyed our visual art pieces. They will be there until April 28, so come check them out!!

My visual piece is called "The Descent of Inanna, Goddess of Laundry." It's the tale of an Italian American "princess" who goes to her brother-in-law's funeral, runs into some gangsters, and winds up in jail. Of course it's all her husband's fault, so she sells him out. But she's a loyal member of the family, so she returns home after that to do her mother-in-law's laundry. Below the clothesline is an ironing board, sprayed gold, an old fashioned black iron, tied with a red satin ribbon, and a gold laundry basket, full of clothes. There are seven verses in the poem. I put each verse onto a tshirt transfer and ironed them onto white items of clothing. On the ironing board itself is a final shirt, explaining the original Sumerian myth. Hidden in the laundry basked is a small boom box, which plays Italian pop music.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Come to my Poetry Reading!

Some of you know I am in a poetry workshop with teacher Chris Stewart at the Creative Alliance (housed at the Patterson Theatre). We're having a visual poetry exhibit and reading on Thursday, April 12. (Don't panic, the readings are short, and all of the poems have been workshopped.) Please come! Bring friends!

Note: YOU MUST RSVP to the email addy or number below so that your name is on the attendee list. Also please let me know if you are coming. (You can post a comment below.)

OK, here's the official invite from Chris:

- - -

Please join us for an evening of poetry to celebrate National Poetry Month with the Write Here, Write Now workshops at Creative Alliance. Christine Stewart, CA artist in residence, and WHWN members Leo Horrigan, Michael Kelly, Rachel Lucke, Cliff Lynn, Eugenie Nable, Lisa Orenstein, Aimee Pohl, Kathy Spath, Shara Terjung, and Nicole Walton, present Visual Poems at a reception upstairs in the Amalie Rothschild gallery, followed by a reading of their work in the Patterson Theatre.

The event is April 12th. Gallery show/reception begins at 6 pm; the reading is at 7 pm. Please RSVP as space is limited. The event is free, but a $5 donation to cover costs is suggested (and appreciated!). Please include all the names of those in your party for the guest list.

RSVP to or call: 410-276-1651.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Baltimore Burns!

Since my last post I've been busy with our annual Robert Burns supper. We held it last Saturday (January 27) for about 30 people, down from a high of 42. It was the twelfth annual supper held by the Baltimore Burns Club, which my husband, Simon Walton, founded with his friend Stephen Cullen. No piper this year, and no flutes or guitars either. But we had an emotional, almost operatic rendition of Ca The Yowes by my friend Tammy, and much admired recitings of the Burns poem, To A Mouse, in Scots, Hebrew and Spanish. Of course there were the other usual performances, some better than others, and books of poetry handed out to new recruits with Scottish roots.

This year's theme was Robert Burns the Pirate. I designed the graphic (above, at right), and we ironed it onto black tshirts, which everyone received. I also gave the Immortal Memory Speech. It was my second year delivering this speech. If someone else had wanted to do it, I wouldn't have interfered. I meant my speech to be shorter, but it went on far too long yet again. It was about privateers, piracy, and plagiarism. The virtues of artistic theft, as well as the nasty side. I was heckled.

It doesn't matter who delivers the Immortal Memory--there is always heckling. Several people came up to me afterwards and asked for a copy of my remarks. So there.

No one remembers what time we finally toddled off to bed. We had six overnight guests. The party resumed in a more sedate fashion on Sunday. It was noon when we started moving again. We whipped up and consumed a huge pile of waffles. There were omelets made with leftover haggis and cheddar cheese. In the afternoon more guests from the night before arrived, to help move heavy tables and chairs back to the rooms (and floors) they came from, and to reassemble our living room. We also packed away the dishes and glassware and silver. For this latter crowd I reheated some of the previous night's boeuf bourguignon with barley risotto. In the evening, I mixed leftover strips of grilled chicken (we'd used only a fraction of that chicken in the cock-a-leekie soup) into a pound of ziti and a tipped it into a bowl of butter, oil, and chopped parsley that we'd forgotten to use the night before. I added hefty slivers of parmesan with a vegetable peeler, and served it all up with oily garlic toast made from stale bread.

Always feed the workers, that's our motto. Along with, never let leftovers go to waste.

On Burns night my ten-year-old daughter and her friends also got into the act. They wore kilts. They ate pizza. One of them helped her mother read To A Mouse in Hebrew. They stayed up all night. I vaguely remember going into my daughter's room around 3 am because they were complaining, loudly, that they had lost their internet connection in the midst of some game they were playing against each other. One team was on the floor using a laptop, another at my daughter' desktop PC. They seemed surprised that in the middle of the night they could find no one except each other to play against. They're into Webkinz.

Eight days later, there is still a huge pile of table linens in my laundry room. I've washed it all, but it's still waiting to be ironed, folded, and put away. That's because immediately after Burns night weekend, we had to print and send out invitations for a memorial to my mother that we're holding next weekend, put together auction baskets for my daughter's school's Winter Gala (held last night), arrange a trip to the Labyrinth Museum for my daughter's after-school girls' club, write and revise a magazine piece (it's not finished), improve a Powerpoint presentation about our vacation home in France, and plan a family trip to Williamsburg (using a timeshare week we had banked) around a cousin's wedding next June.

Meanwhile, we are still consuming leftover haggis. Recently, I used it to fill quesadillas. I was the only one who wanted to eat that. But I say, "Live on, fusion cuisine!"

p.s. Last month we also went to Gov. Martin O'Malley's inaugural ball. We were in a great spot when he came onstage with his band and played The Times They Are A Changin'. Ran into a bunch of old friends. Had a blast.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Story Published!

I've been busy! Working on a screenplay and writing a bunch of nonfiction essays for a workshop. So it's been a while since I've posted anything here. I promise to come back soon and post something more substantive than the reading list which follows. But I do have news. A flash fiction story of mine has been published by Vestal Review. Whoo hoo! Here's the link:

The Man from the Train

And here's a list of what I have been reading since I posted my summer reading list here on September 4, 2006 (in no particular order):

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
Intimacy, by Hanif Kureishi
The Celtic Realms: The History and Culture of the Celtic Peoples from Pre-history to the Norman Invasion, by Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick
The Handyman, by Carolyn See
The Woman I Left Behind, by Kim Jensen
Child of My Heart, by Alice McDermott
Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill
Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
The Memory-Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards
The Sea, by John Banville
Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewsky
Narrative Design, by Madison Smartt Bell
The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard
Incompleteness, by Rebecca Goldstein
New Monologues for Women, I and II, ed. by Tori Haring-Smith and Liz Engleman
Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl

I gobbled up Reading Lolita in Tehran. It was more valuable than I thought it would be. As Nafisi tells the story of her secret meetings with a female students under an increasingly repressionist regime, the reader learns just how much one's sense of self can be threatened by living in such an environment. One must work hard to preserve the spirit, and one way is to expand oneself by studying and sharing great literature.

The preservation of spirit under difficult circumstances led me to Frankl, which I am still reading. Frankl is an important thinker, and I'd like to comment more thoughtfully at a later time.

Intimacy was a short one, and the title describes the narrator's relationship with the reader as much as it does the messy crisis of his character's life. Kureishi is one of those writers who accomplishes huge things with few words. You can see the insides and the outsides of his narrator all at once. John Banville does that well, too (see below).

The Celtic Realms was an impulse purchase. The history gets a bit tedious, but I am enjoying the parts about the female Celtic heroic figures and deities. Also it's fascinating to think how many of the customs we've inherited from the Celts appparently came from the early peoples who migrated westward out of ancient India. (I already have Antonia Fraser's Boadicea's Chariot on the shelf and hope to read it as a follow up.)

I think Carolyn See's books are a hoot. Quirky characters, unusual plots, fun and quick to read. I have another one in the wings. Every now and then I send her an email, and she writes back!

The Woman I Left Behind is written by a local author, Kim Jensen. I met her at the 2006 City Lit Festival in Mt. Vernon, where she did a reading and drew me into her seductive narrative. It was towards the end of the day, and did not have a check or enough cash left to buy her book. Later I ordered it on Amazon (they're pestering me to review it; perhaps I will). Jensen teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County. I was pleasantly surprised to find -- it has to be! -- Kathy Acker as a pivotal character in this novel! One day I will ask Jensen if I am right. I had only recently discovered The Essential Kathy Acker when I read Jensen's book. Suddenly it hit me. The Woman I Left Behind is as much about Acker is it is about the wife that the Palestinian emigre, Khalid, leaves behind when he finds Irene, the woman he really loves. Somehow Jenson reminds me a bit of Mary Gaitskill -- maybe because her characters hover on the fractal margin between connectedness and oblivion.

Mary Gaitskill's Veronica. Wow. This is the best novel I have read in ages. I would give my front teeth to write as well as that. What courage. Like fingernails scraping on a blackboard, and you can't stop listening. I want to write with the same sense of destructive abandon! I've scoured the internet and scooped up copies of everything else Gaitskill has published.

The Alice McDermott book was pure pleasure. I love the way she writes. Quirky story, magical even. Interesting parallel here with the story in Veronica, a quirky, erotic even, coming of age story revolving around a relationship between two female characters, one of whom is doomed and the other survives to tell the tale.

Only Revolutions is the new hot trendy literary masterpiece, or so various critics were saying. I decided I had to have it. Went to B&N and paid retail. I found it unreadable. It gave me a headache. Give me a break. This is not literature, it's new age bullshit. The production values are good, though, and there are cute little tricks built into the book itself, which is supposedly an object d'art. I read bits of it from both ends, and the chronology stuff in the margins. I did the flip thing to see the page numbers rotate along the edge. This book does absolutely nothing for me. I can't believe I bought it -- what was I thinking? And ha! The New Yorker agrees with me.

Shirley Hazzard is a wonderful writer. Her characters are so well crafted, so well definined and so distinct from one another. And her sense of time and place, and pacing, and mood, and story. I confess I am not quite finished with The Great Fire but I am loving it. I am enjoying it so much I keep forgetting to read it as a writer. I also have Hazzard's earlier book, The Transit of Venus, and hope to read it soon.

I read Madison Smartt Bell's textbook cover to cover, including all of the tedious but essential footnotes. I hear it is possible to attend Bell's classes at Goucher as a non-degree student, but only at significant expense and loads of rigamarole. You get to sign up for him only after the degree students are accommodated, and his classes are always full. Oh well.

After finishing Bell's textbook I read the new Stephen King novel solely to analyze its structure. Perhaps my time would have been better spent reading something else.

I need a new craft book to read. I like to always have one on the go. I haven't read John Gardner's The Art of Fiction yet. I have an old paperback edition snarfed at a flea market. It probably deserves to be read next, but I ought to get a better copy. Or maybe Janet Burroway's text, Writing Fiction, should be next.

New Monologues for Women (I&II) collects short to longish pieces, and they are outrageous, some of them, and a pleasure to read. You have to recite these pieces out loud if you want the full effect. My friend Margo loaned these slim volumes to me, and she probably wants them back. She was careful to write her name with a big black Sharpie pen in the front of both of them as she was handing them to me.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter and The Sea were book club reads. I was not fond of the former, as I found the characters hopelessly one dimensional and unrealistic. It was decidedly unliterary, too formulaic. I could not believe the author graduated from a serious writing program. Although I have suspicions -- perhaps writing programs drain all the creativity and originality and courage out of you. The Sea was my choice, however, and I fell in love with Banville. A painterly writer, and this story with its three intermingling currents is well constructed. The book is brief, and the story is tidal, like the sea itself. A haunting masterpiece. It won the Booker prize but Banville said in one of his interviews that The Sea is not his best book! Eventually I will read one or more of his others, perhaps The Book of Evidence.

I'm fascinated with Kurt Gödel and have three books about him. I'm well into Rebecca Goldstein's book, Incompleteness, and up next is Janna Levin's novel (faction?) about Gödel and Alan Turing, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. I had long had in my library the third book, Douglas R. Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-Winner, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Unhappily, I found it tough going and eventually quit the first two times I tried to read it. I guess I did not understand Gödel, but Goldstein explains him well, and her book is much easier to read. I've heard Janna Levin lecture on mathematical physics, and she's been interviewed a bunch of times on various podcasts that I have enjoyed. So after Goldstein, it'll be Levin, and then I'll go back and try Hofstadter again. Perhaps I will have better success.