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Second Life's parent company, Linden Labs, was founded by Philip Rosedale, 39, in 1999. The site opened to the public in 2003.

So, Second Life is a virtual world and it's free to join. But why would you join? Why would you want to go into a virtual world?

"The hardest thing about Second Life is finding what you're into," Crane says, and he seems to be half-agreeing with me. "You have to bring in a lot of who you are, to find something you enjoy doing. Most people will look around, buy a few things, go to a club, dance a little, and that's about it."

But, Crane says, for some people, there's a whole lot more to Second Life. "If anybody has any degree of programming experience whatsoever, then picking up Second Life is really easy. And people who haven't done any programming can get so into this that they actually learn how. The scripts are pretty basic."

Crane persists, "It's like filling out a tax form, almost. It's trying to figure out what values to put in what blanks to make sure it all looks the way you want it to."

Jopsy Pendragon has been standing around, unattended, preternaturally patient, facing away from us and waiting there on Crane's computer screen while we've been chatting. But as Crane decides to show me an example of coding and scripting, Pendragon's broad-shouldered and dragon-winged form is eclipsed by onscreen windows known as "editing widgets."

As I look on, Crane opens a widget full of fundamental shapes, called "prims," clicks on a box prim, spreads it out, elongates it, and then adds a second, triangular prim, which he places on top of the elongated box. Deft with his clicking mouse, Crane uses subsequent widgets to color in the parts, hollow out the composite prim, and texturize it. He's quick at this, and within a minute, Pendragon is bathing in the light of a homemade virtual lamp.

The funny thing is, there's no real need for lamps in Second Life. If you want light, you click on a command that says "force sun," and you make it noontime. If you want more light still, you turn up the resolution on your computer. But Crane's lamps are beautiful, and they're also necessary if you want to authenticate a city streetscape. So lots of people buy them. That's right. They buy them. With real, first-life money.

The currency in Second Life, or "in-world," as they say, is Linden dollars. The variable exchange rate for Lindens is about L$168 to one U.S. dollar. Jopsy Pendragon's lamps average a few hundred Lindens apiece, or just a couple of U.S. dollars.

Which is to say that many residents of Second Life are making money -- both Lindens and Benjamins. One person even used his avatar to invent a computer game, called Slingo, which the person subsequently sold for millions to Nintendo. Most Second Lifers are making small amounts of money in small transactions, a dollar here, a dollar there. But those numbers do add up. In the past 24 hours, over $1 million has been spent on clothes, hair, "real" estate, and goodness knows what other in-world items.

Crane later informs me that he has friends who've made Second Life their career. "I know a guy on the East Coast who does nothing but make trees," Crane says. "And gardens, and landscaping. And he buys a new computer off the proceeds every year. And I have a friend in Canada who does custom work, mostly costumes, and he's a starving-artist type, but now he buys his groceries and makes rent off his work in Second Life."

Second Life? More like a second job.

In fact, Crane does pretty well for himself in his first life -- owning a Hillcrest condo and driving a convertible, for instance -- but he's also one of the richer residents of Second Life.

"I sell my lamps," he tells me, "but I also have a particular bailiwick. My thing is to teach people how to do scripting for a special kind of special effect. You might call them particle splashes. It's a very dynamic special effect. It's like painting in 3-D with kind of a time element to it. I have a classroom that I built in-world that lets people show up whenever they want. They can go through all the samples on their own. Kind of like the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, where they have all the little exhibits. And the classroom's been there so long, it's basically spread by word-of-mouth."

Crane shows me a variety of electricity-shooting devices that look as if they belong in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.

I'm beginning to understand that the two fundamental actions in Second Life are building and scripting. In essence, building a lamp and scripting how its light shines, and building sunbeams through the leaves in a tree and scripting how those sunbeams glisten, and even building the tree itself and scripting how its leaves move -- all of these objects and actions are designed and created the same way in Second Life. You edit some prims and put them together and write up some code and voila! And if the residents of Second Life didn't build and script these things, then these things wouldn't exist.

"The world has a lot more detail and a lot more craftsmanship than it ever did before," Crane says. "Things used to look a lot more blocky and more plain. But a lot of people have come along who are very good at building things."

He opens a search window, clicks, and teleports to an example of what he's talking about. After a few seconds, Jopsy Pendragon appears in a new spot and begins to fly around. He lands next to the realistic and tragic form of a giant slumped snowman.

"This melting snowman sculpture was made by a fellow named Starax Statosky," Crane says. "He was an infamous sculptor. He's probably one of the most popular artists in Second Life. He created an object called a magic wand that could respond to keywords. If you said 'eye,' a huge eyeball would appear in the air, look around, fall to the ground, and roll away. If you said 'train,' a huge locomotive would appear on the horizon and roll across -- smoke, steam, dust, train sounds, everything. It was an amazing object. Unfortunately, though, Second Life is a world that's constantly changing. And when somebody comes up with a new way to bother other people, Linden Labs has to come up with a way to protect them. Not on an individual basis, but by finding ways to limit how scripts can be annoying. And unfortunately, Starax's magic wand used a lot of the same mechanisms as these scripts that were being used maliciously. So Linden Labs disabled a lot of the scripts that were used by this wand, and it broke really badly. Well, Starax was so upset by his wand breaking -- he used to charge something like $10 of real money for each wand -- and so many people were so upset that their wands broke, because they'd paid real money for this virtual object, and then Starax just vanished. We've never heard from him again. So the few sculptures that are left in the world of his are coveted and quite impressive. They're so distinctive."

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