The Drax Files Radio Hour: a Linden-eye view

radio-hourThe 17th edition of The Drax Files Radio Hour more-or-less carries on where episode 16 left off, with more interviews and comments from Linden Lab staffers, gathered when Drax dropped-in on a group of them as they camped-out in Santa Cruz one Friday afternoon.

Prior to this, there’s another Leap Motion giveaway, and mention of forthcoming updates to OnLive’s provisioning of SL Go. there’s also usual chin-wagging about HMDs, and details of an offer for those who can attend it to get $100 off registration for the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference and Expo, which takes place at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California on May 19th / 20th. Simply use the code “drax2014” (or indeed, “nwn2014” if you are an NWN reader) when registering, and get to hear the likes of Palmer Luckey (Oculus VR), Philip Rosedale, Ebbe Altberg, David Holtz (Leap Motion), Ben Lang (Road to VR) and others.

As well as being on the blog post and Stitcher, the show can also be found on YouTube, and I’m using that recording in the timestamps below. The recording itself is towards the end of this piece.

For those who want to cut to the quick, the core interviews commence at 20:25 into the podcast. This is an absolute “must listen” portion, although the sound quality isn’t brilliant in places, for which Drax apologies up-front (one of the pains of recording in an outdoor, windy environment). Nevertheless, sound issues shouldn’t necessarily be an issue for skipping over this part of the show, in which the likes of Baker Linden, and Hoz Linden from the development side of things (Hoz is a development team manager), and members of the finance team discuss the complexity and intricacy involved in running and maintaining an environment as complex as Second Life.

Baker Linden is well-known among those familiar with the dev side of Second Life and who attend the Simulator User Group and the Server Beta User Group, both for the work he carries out. His current major project being Group Ban lists, providing the means by which troublemakers can be banned from re-joining groups with open enrollment (think estate bans, and you’ll get the picture). He’s a popular figure among users, and known for his mischievous sense of humour. A server-side trouble-shooter, he’s also undertaken major fixes for large group loading issues.

Both Baker and Hoz note that as SL is community driven, it’s important to give those managing communities the tools with which they can manage things more efficiently. The group ban and  group load work are considered major elements in this, with the former being voluntarily picked-up by Baker in 2013 after reading JIRA VWR-29337.

Goup bans: the option to ban people from a group is available from the Members tab (l), and allws individual or multiple bans to be applied. Those banned are listed in Banned Agents tab (r), which include a button to unban names and a button to pre-actively add names to the ban list using the people picker
Group bans: provides the option to ban troublemakers from a group. It involves some significant changes to the server-side of SL, as well as updates to the viewer itself. Key among the latter is an additional sub-tab (currently called “Banned Agents”) in the Members tab of the Group floater. This displays a list of those banned from a group, and provides a means of applying individual bans (which can also be applied via other means) or multiple bans, and to unban a person.

The discussion covers some of the difficulties the Lab faces with maintaining Second Life (server and viewer – with Drax drawing an analogy through plumbing: when something major goes wrong with the plumbing in a house, it’s not exactly feasible to rip it all out and start over, so the plumber has to work through how things work, where things go and what needs to be done to fix things with minimal disruption (or additional breakage to the house) – which is pretty much how LL’s devs have to work.

This is in some ways illustrated by the comments made about fixing group chat [26:29]. There is currently a project that Simon Linden is working on to better optimise elements of group chat, which has been getting some regularly testing on the Aditi (Beta) grid by both the Lab and users. The code for this looks likely to be fully deployed to the back-end  chat servers in week 19 (commencing Monday May 5th). It won’t resolve all of the issues associated with group chat, but it should see some overall improvements.

Both Baker and Hoz note that any significant overhaul of the chat system would require significant investments in time, manpower and money – and that even then, while they may end up fixing an obvious problem, the nature of the SL services are so intertwined, that it is not always possible to simply remove a block of code or a service and simply replace it with something else without running the risk of doing far more harm than good. It is this complexity, coupled to both a cost / benefit analysis of what can be achieved in a given time frame over what might be achieved, and an analysis of the potential for content breakage (itself no small concern), which generally tends to result in the Lab opting not to work on issues which users may see as being something which is an “obvious” fix, rather than any capricious refusal to do so.

Hoz passes some thoughts on perceptions about Linden staff engagement in SL, noting that he doesn’t spend much time in-world, he is nevertheless passionate about the creative processes in SL and how they’re leveraged by users. He also notes that, realistically, given the number of hours available to them, many Lab staff are focused on running the company and the grid rather than spending a lot of time in-world. Baker admits to being a Second Life user prior to joining the Lab, and quite possibly a rowdy one at that, which goes a long way to explaining his very evident enthusiasm for the platform.

The second part of this interview [31:09] sees Hoz take the opportunity to again re-iterate that while the Lab may not do everything users want, or may not appear in-world a lot of the time doesn’t mean they lack passion for, or interest in, the platform or its users. This discussion moves on through subjects such as the JIRA (and the misconceptions that surround it), and as such, is one of the richest pieces of information anyone who wants to understand what really goes on at the Lab, rather than making assumptions, should take eight minutes of their time to listen to what Hoz has to say.

From here, the conversation switches to Bacon and Saeros Linden [46:40] , both of whom work in the finance team. Bacon has the job of testing the entire transaction management / payment system by going out and purchasing SL goods, purchasing land, making tier payments, buying Linden Dollars, etc., while Saeros works on the code for this side of the platform.

Bacon Linden tests all aspects of the transaction system, whether it’s buying goods in-world or via the Marketplace, buying land, paying tier, purchasing L$, making premium membership payments, paying in L$ or via PayPal or credit card, and so on (image courtesy of Draxtor Despres)

Again, the fascinating elements of this conversation are the extent of the testing involved, which encompasses interactions with the third-party companies responsible for processing the likes of credit card payments on the Lab’s behalf, as well as all the internal mechanisms use by the Lab for user / user transactions. Again, for those with an interest in how the various aspects of SL actually work, this is another discussion where much is revealed, particularly LL’s dependence upon external service providers which may not always be understood  – or readily acknowledged at times. As Bacon points out, the Lab isn’t only subject to these services where handling certain payments are concerned, they really are also subject to any issues these services may suffer as well.

The range of the discussion here is as fascinating as that with Baker and Hoz, demonstrating again that the folk managing and running the platform actually do have a greater appreciation of the platform and how it is used than we might actually credit – although that doesn’t necessarily mean that do get everything right, as the frank discussion on recent issues relating to transaction history page updates, and the step being taken to correct matters, reveals.

The show rounds-out with Da5id Abbot discussing Fantasy Faire 2014 [55:33] – which, if you haven’t visited already, please make sure you do!

Another great show, and the interviews here are simply superb and more than worth taking the time to listen to. It’s very easy to build-up preconceptions and make assumptions about the Lab and its relationship to both Second Life and its users, particularly when we distance ourselves from the Lab as much as they have in the past appeared to distance themselves from us.

As such, and as I’ve already mentioned a couple of times, the interviews presented here should help redress the balance somewhat. For my part, and while I make a point of attending as many in-world meetings with Lab staffers as I can (up to five a week), the conversations were still an eye-opener for me in several respects, and I really cannot recommend both this segment and episode #16 of The Drax Files Radio Hour enough.