May 27, 2007

Fortunate to have a diversity of friends...

It's been a busy, social week...

This week, I reconnected with some old friends...

Visited my friends Azlim and Shahiroz, who'd invited me to see Chahar Bagh, an Ismaili art and cultural exhibition, at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown.

I first met Azlim back around 1989, through a local computer club. We were both young guys energized by the possibilities of technology and keen to learn and apply it to further personal spiritual or artistic goals.

At Chahar Bagh, I felt enlivened by the singing of the youth choir, and fascinated by the examples of "cultural pluralism" in painting, photography and sculpture. This brief exposure to some of the philosophy and values of the Vancouver Shia Ismaili community impressed me greatly.

Had dinner with Patti and Riki, the mother and sister of Bob Bagnell.

They are two lovely ladies who are "fighting the good fight" on behalf of their son and brother, Robert Wayne Bagnell. They were attending the Coroner's Inquest into Bob's death in 2004 in an incident involving the Vancouver Police Department and the use of Taser guns.

I first met Bob sometime around 2001, when he would hang out in front of my local 7-11, drawing pictures and being a character. Bob was a good guy. His mother and sister are living examples of his dedicated and loving family.

Had dinner with my friend Ricardo and his lovely wife Yukari.

Talking with them about their relationship and family/cultural backgrounds reminded me of the backgrounds of my wife and I, and also reminded me of how much I appreciate living in a relatively free and multicultural city.

I first met Ricardo in 2002, when he came from Mexico to work for my employer as our network technician. Ricardo is a sincere and genuine person who treats himself and those around him with respect and dignity.

I have some family and a few other friends, both old and more recent, with whom I need to reconnect. It sure feels good to do it...

May 24, 2007

Coffee with Riki and Patti, Part 2

Robert Wayne Bagnell as a teen.Bob's Mum, Riki Bagnell, and his sister, Patti Gillman, were in Vancouver to attend the second part of the inquest into Bob's unfortunate death three years ago. It seems mind-boggling that it has taken three years to get this far with the inquest into Bob's death.

Fighting the Fight...

In spite of their sad personal loss and suffering, they have continued to advocate not only for their own interests, but on behalf of current and future victims:
  • They want to see Amnesty International's recommendation come to pass: A moratorium on Taser use pending independent research into the risks associated with Taser use, and for
  • They called for funding for families of Taser victims, so they can afford to pay a lawyer to represent their interests at an inquest.

In May 2007, The official Coroner's Inquest into the death of Robert Wayne Bagnell finished. Although the proceedings of the inquest are closed, there seems to me to be little closure on the issue in concrete terms.

In a May 25, 2007 Vancouver Sun article titled "No recommendations from Taser death inquiry", it said:

The five-man jury concluded Robert Wayne Bagnell died on June 23, 2004 of a "restraint-associated cardiac arrest" due to acute cocaine intoxication and psychosis.

But that's not the whole story.
Here's a synopsis of events from Cameron Ward, the lawyer for the Bagnell family:

"Robert Bagnell, 44, died on June 23, 2004. Two days later, Vancouver police contacted his next of kin to tell them that Robert had died of a probable cocaine overdose. A month later, Mr. Bagnell’s family learned for the first time from media reports that Vancouver police had used a Taser gun on him. Chief Jamie Graham defended the late disclosure, saying that he had waited for toxicology results before going public with new information. (Despite numerous requests, the family still has not received any toxicology reports). Then on August 17, 2004, the Vancouver Police Department held another news conference to announce that their members used the Taser in order to rescue Mr. Bagnell from a fire in his rooming house. (The Bagnell family has since learned that the “fire” was a minor electrical fault on the first floor, and likely not a threat to anyone on the fifth floor, where Mr. Bagnell was)."

"...the VPD acknowledged that [Bagnell] was not a threat to anyone and that he was not involved in the commission of a crime when they sent an ERT (SWAT) team into the washroom Robert was in. The police said Bagnell was shocked with 50,000 volts so they could "rescue" him from a "fire" in his building. Although the family doubts these claims, they have been unable to obtain copies of police or autopsy reports and they have been unable to get an inquest scheduled."
So, in my mind, the questions to ask are:
  • Why didn't the Vancouver Police tell the Bagnell family that Tasers were involved in Bob's death? Although the VPD did notify the family of Bob's death two days afterwards, the cause given was 'cocaine overdose'. Why did his mother and sister have to learn about the Taser connection through the media 30 days after his death? (Read more...)
  • One of the Taser guns used by VPD ERT members in the incident put out over twice as much electricity as it was supposed to. The other Taser gun tested put out of eighty five times it's specified energy! Are there any safety standards in place for Taser guns? (Read more...)
  • The jury at the coroner's inquest classified the death as an accident and was "unable to agree on any recommendations". Really?

So, who ends up being accountable for these issues? Who's going to stand up? Neither the Vancouver Police nor the Taser manufacturer seem to be taking responsibility, at least from what I've heard and seen in the media.

Riki bagnell and Daughter Patti Gillman in Vancouver, May 2007Being the Light...

Again, it was my great joy to meet with Riki and Patti, Bob Bagnell's family , for the second time, on May 24th.

We met for a dinner in Metrotown Mall on the day before they flew home back east. We talked about the inquest of course, which had taken a long eight months to finally resume.

They again praised the tireless efforts made by their lawyer, Cameron Ward, and we griped about the reluctance of corporate minds to stand up and admit to mistakes.

Although we agreed that the media seems to have a one-week memory span, Patti did have words of praise for Irwin Loy of 24 Hours (Vancouver), who reported on their inquest proceedings during each day.

If anything, this whole experience has been a lesson in overkill.

If what I've heard is correct:
  • Back in 2004, there were over a dozen members of the Vancouver Police Emergency Reponse Team on hand at the Columbia Hotel, all to extract one occupant (Bob).
  • Bob Bagnell was tasered by a Police Officer who outweighed him by approximately 100 pounds. How much force was needed? How much was enough?
  • Taser International and the VPD both had Lawyers present to protect their interests, versus the two women with their one lawyer.
All of that could easily be mistaken for overkill, I think.

From what I can see, in spite of everything, Riki and Patti have not given up on their concerns over Taser (mis)use, and continue to fight the fight, and light the light.

(Patti, keep on going! Write a book about this or something. I think you've still got a lot more that you want to say.)

May 14, 2007

Mothers Day 2007

Me and my wife are sitting in the cafe at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.

A woman is sitting across the aisle from me, looking out the window at the sunny, windy day outside.

Her hair is full and wavy, almost pure white. Her figure and flowery blouse remind me of something my mother once wore. Mum had some of those crazy 70s-patterned blouses.

Somewhere, in some alternate universe, my Mum is sitting in a quiet cafe, enjoying a drink and watching the sunny, windy day outside.

May 01, 2007

Second Life: My New Life in Pixels, Part 5

Law and Order in a Virtual Society, or "Whose Second Life is it Anyway?"

After a few of weeks in Second Life, I have learned about the vast number and variety of residents and locales. There are millions of potential inhabitants (although maybe only about 25,000 or so are actually online at any given time).

Environments and public spaces in SL vary from benign, empty and pastoral garden spaces, to raucous, busy urban malls where the sheer density of avatars brings out the best and worst in online behaviour. If you want to sit alone in an empty Japanese-style temple surrounded by gold dragons, you can do that. If you want to be in a frenetic mob of rejects from a superhero novel creating spontaneous pyrotechnic displays, you can do that too.

When I first joined SL, I was quite surprised by the sense of hedonism and the lack of structure that some of the residents seemed to enjoy. Generally, I consider SL to be a surrealist's wonderland and truly, one of the largest ongoing costume parties in the world today. I call it a costume party because in it's essence, unlike online role playing games, SL does not require it's participants to take on a particular game-play sort of role, or pursue or contribute to any pre-set goals. SL is more like an empty, undefined environment that, over time, becomes structured by it's inhabitants, according to their own needs. In fact, according to Linden Labs, much of the content in Second Life today has been created by it's residents.

Inhabitants Shaping Their Environment: One Early Experiment

Back in the early '70s, before the beginning of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte's Architecture Machine Group created a simple interactive kinetic sculpture/installation comprised of a terrarium of gerbils and tiny metallic-covered boxes. A robotic arm positioned over the gerbil cage would occasionally reach in and change ("adjust" or "correct") the position of a box. The gerbils had their own needs, and would move boxes on their own to create little living spaces or simply as a consequence of their natural movement and activities. The robotic arm was, I guess, metaphorically, like the "hand of the creator". I suppose the whole piece was an experiment in the interactions between two systems in a shared environment. (This experimental environment was described in Stewart Brand's excellent 1987 book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT)

We've come a long way from the gerbil cage. Each of SL's regions requires it's own dedicated server. As of March 2007, Linden was running about 2000 servers located all over the United States, with plans to be able to scale up to handle something like 100 times the user activity they are handling today. So, Second Life is quite a massive virtual space.

Still, I think the existence of SL poses the same kind of question posed by Negroponte's gerbil cage experiment: With the ability to dynamically change and define their environment, what will the environment's residents decide to do?

The Culture and Ethics in Second Life

Unlike the simple walls of the gerbil cage, in SL, the boundaries and controls of the environment - what it will and will not let it's residents do - are multi-layered and can be rather complex.

The physics of the world (usually) include gravity, solidity, acceleration and visibility (e.g. atmospheric effects like fog or turbidity).

Ethics and morality however, are defined by a list of rules. There is good, social behaviour and bad, anti-social behaviour in SL, just like anywhere else.

Second Life has it's own stated set of Community Standards, which advise in a nutshell:
  • In public, "PG" rated areas, public nudity of residents is frowned upon. Billboards advise new residents to not walk around naked.
  • No intolerance, harassment or assault permitted to other users
  • Indecency is relative to the stated rating in each SL region. Some areas are rated "PG", so have different standards than areas that are rated "Mature" or "Adult"
Negative Feedback, or How the System Controls Itself Socially or Ethically

Officially, Linden instructs residents to use the in-world "Report Abuse" feature to complain about the behaviour or actions of another resident.

Unofficially, I have also discovered that groups of residents have formed their own voluntary law enforcement associations - self-appointed cops on patrol - in order to discourage unacceptable or anti-social behaviour. They wear cop uniforms and have some kind of weaponry or powers that allow them to control (or subdue) misbehaving residents. I found this fascinating.

In one of my first visits to Orientation Island (a popular PG hang-out for SL residents), I saw a cop, introduced myself and asked him about his role in SL.

Me: "So, are you Linden staff? Are you authorized or sanctioned by Linden?"
Cop: "We organized ourselves."
Me: "So how do you enforce? Do you have weapons or something?"
Cop: "Yes. We have weapons."
Me: "So, you can arrest people?"
Cop: "You want to be a cop?"
Me: "Nope - I'm just curious. Never met a cop in here before."

Suddenly, a red biplane flew down low next to the crowd. The cop ran over to the shouted to the pilot not to fly so close to the onlookers. After a few moments, the cop returned.

Me: "So, you guys just decided to become cops?"
Cop: "Sure, It's Second Life."

A third resident, standing 10 yards away, pipes into the conversation:

3rd Res: "Second Life doesn't need cops. If you have a problem with someone, just report it to the staff."
Cop: "F*ck that. Some people are animals. We're cops! It's Second Life!"
Me: "As long as people are being helpful and constructive, it's all good to me."
3rd Res: "You can play cop if you want to, but Second Life doesn't need cops."
Cop: "I have to go. There's a shooting."
Me: "A shooting!? Can residents get injured here?"
Cop: "Some areas have games with guns. Some users don't respect where they can and can't use them."

I found this exchange fascinating. I don't think there's any concept of mortality in Second Life - you cannot die per se - but there is a concept of right and wrong, and punishment. According to the SL Police Blotter, users who have broken the rules have been penalized with temporary suspension of privileges to enter SL - like 2 or 3 days, but usually, many small penalties consist of a warning.

A number of social, economic and cultural issues and problems have arisen in Second Life which seem similar to the kinds issues arising in small countries in "Real Life". In SL, residents have broken the law and some have tried to test the social or ethical frameworks of their world.

In 2006, residents of 400 regions voted to ban certain types of false or exploitive behaviour by commercial business residents.

The Linden Dollar-based virtual economy of SL has suffered from hyperinflation, and the complexion of SL has also changed as a result of active commercial exploitation of SL as a marketing and revenue generating space. To me, these are all direct evidences of how this virtual society is evolving and how it's residents are expressing their needs and are testing the boundaries of it's existence.

Just so you don't think I'm taking this whole thing too seriously, Second Life was parodied brilliantly by Vancouver blogger Darren Barefoot.