Monday, April 26, 2004

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POST-WAR RECONSTRUCTION

Jason_foo
A battle-scarred commando returns home-- to Second Life.  (Originally published here.)

About this time last year, Jason Foo found himself face to face with a fedayeen and his bayonet-fixed AK-47. The man’s weapon had jammed, but setbacks like that are inconsequential to members of Uday Hussein’s elite cadre of suicidal commandos. (As an initiation blood rite, they were known to shred live dogs to pieces with their teeth and bare hands.) And so this fedayeen pointed the business end of his bayonet at Jason Foo, and came charging at him headlong.

When I first meet Jason in Second Life, however, the setting is a bit more placid. It’s late February, and he’s standing in an open-air disco with flashing lights and pounding techno, the nightclub he’s built with his rapidly accumulating earnings.

“I kinda turned into a realtor in here,” he tells me, proudly. “Made 7,000 [Linden Dollars, or “L$”] today, just selling land. I realized two days ago that the gray areas on the map are unclaimed land. I buy it up, and sell 512 [square meter] plots for L$1,800.” His enthusiasm pours across the screen; judging by his avatar birth date, he's only been a resident for less than three weeks. “I take it you have seen my signs in Green? They are my realty signs," he continues. "I have signs mainly all over Green, but I started branching to other sectors today. I sell property at decent prices, and I want people to know when they see one of my signs, that they are getting a good deal.”

Later on, he tells me how he was able to acquire so much land so quickly. It began with a Linden-sponsored land rush, and the “Land for the Landless” program, in which Linden Lab sells discounted real estate at one Linden Dollar per square meter.

“I got my first plot in Stinson on a land rush,” Jason explains, “248 square meters. Sold it that night for L$1,000. Then I was handed a 512 square meter plot in Green with Land for the Landless, for L$512. Sold it for L$1,800. Then I noticed five plots in Green went public. I bought them for L$1 per square meter, chopped them into 512 square meter plots, and sold each one for L$1,800.” So in a very short time, he’d become a mini-tycoon in the newly burgeoning enterprise of virtual land speculation.

While we talk, I notice that Foo has a picture of himself in full military dress uniform, in his resident profile. I ask him if he’s serving in the Marines.

“I just got out last week,” Foo says. “Trying to find a job [now]. I have massive amounts of computer experience, and no computer jobs [in my area]. I also work with UNIX, and networking, and all sorts of stuff.”

“Were you in Iraq?”

”Yep,” he says. “And Afghanistan. And the Philippines. Last year.”

Foo_real_estate

I’m stunned. “How long were you in the Marines?”

“Four years.”

“And saw three conflicts?!”

“Yeah, in one year… all within eight months, actually. Modern warfare, man.”

His stint ended in Afghanistan. “Unfortunately I lost a quarter of my kneecap, and my leg is permanently damaged. Land mine. I got lucky. My best friend stepped on the mine. Killed him. Injured me.”

I tell him how sorry I am to hear that, but Foo seems unruffled.

“It’s war. People die. We know that. At least we know we die with a purpose. Trust me, this is nothing compared to other wars. We lost more people in one day in Vietnam than we have since this war started. We are lucky.”

In any case, that period of his life is over now. “Well,” he says, “I served my time and my country. Now I serve the Second Life community. There are a lot of interesting people here, a lot of talent.” Because for Foo, the massing of so much land and money isn’t an end in itself.

“It’s all about the community,” he tells me. “I have always been one for helping people. I know how hard it was for me to first get land here in SL. I want to alleviate that problem, and also give alternate options to owning land. We are going to build condos and apartments. And I want to be the largest realty company in Second Life. I want to be the one everyone comes to for help and land and rentals. A place where people can share creativity and sell ideas.”

That first meeting, I got the sense that he could tell me a lot more, about his service overseas, and the ambitions he now has, in this world. So I promise to pick up this conservation, when I can, and he readily agrees.

“I'm collecting unemployment,” says Foo, “so I'm here a lot.”

Foodisco

PART II

When I next interviewed Jason Foo, late February, early March, he wanted to talk about the recent business merger that had just added even more land holdings to his ever-expanding real estate empire. But to be totally honest, I was a bit more interested in what happened, when Foo helped fight the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists of Abu Sayyaf, in the Philippines.

“Working together and combining names,” he wrote to me in an Instant Message press release, “we will not only sell land in every area possible, we will also offer condo and land rentals as well! We are building a massive team of professional builders and realtors to maximize property and condo development!”

When I arrive in-world, Jason takes me through the headquarters of Realm Development. It's still under construction, but it already boasts a disco in the basement, and a main structure built against a cliff face, a multi-leveled, glass and steel building, standing by the sea.

“So how's your knee doing?” I ask him. Jason lost a quarter of a kneecap to an exploding mine, in Afghanistan.

“Still feels like someone is stabbing me with a knife when I walk up the stairs,” he says. “I'll live, though. No big deal. I just need to get a cane.”

“The rest of my life,” Jason Foo says, laughing.

“Will your Veterans Administration benefits be enough to cover you?”

“Nope. ‘Cause technically, I can still work.”

“So they only give you partial benefits?”

“Yep. Doesn't matter," he says, unfazed, "I'm starting a business. A fitness center, I am starting with my mom.”

That’s in the world outside. Meanwhile, I’m here to see how his Second Life businesses are going.

“This is our new club,” Foo tells me, taking me out on the open-air deck, “[still] in development. House by Mouse merged with me-- the owner is Chadd Murray. Now he is my Vice President . We have over five thousand square meters at any given time. I sell property so fast that I can't buy it fast enough. We average about L$10,000 a day. We are trying to get a program together for noobs. [“Noobs”, from “newbies”, i.e. “abject, helpless beginners”.] We want to make sure every noob can get a cheap plot of land,” Foo adds.

And this is about where my duties as an embedded journalist for Second Life begin to clash with my real-world journalism instincts. Jason Foo’s land acquisition effort is definitely part of a broader trend, of recent months, with larger and larger tracts of territory coming under ownership by a small number of residents. (Longtime citizen Sabre Titan recently bemoaned this as “the feudal era of Second Life”, telling me that “I see where this is heading-- only the rich will own the land, and us normal builders and residents will wander and spend within their establishments.")

On the other side, I’d really like to know just what Jason Foo did in the Philippines.

“You were supporting Filipino soldiers looking for terrorist camps?” I suggest.

“Well,” says Foo, “we didn't have to look. We knew where they were. They took a whole mountain. And fortified themselves in it. Can’t remember how to spell the name of the mountain, but we surrounded a mountain in the far West, I think, and took out the terrorists.” In retrospect, he’s probably talking about the ultra-violent, Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists of Abu Sayyaf, but, says Foo, “I really don't remember much about the names. Like I said, three places in eight months.” (By now, we’ve switched from chat to private Instant Message; it doesn’t seem appropriate to be talking about actual war where anyone passing by can hear us.)

“Well, we surrounded [the mountain],” Foo continues, “and cut off all of their supply routs. My unit was fifteen men. The special [forces] unit. We set up all the forward communications and specialized equipment. We went in and flushed them out. Most surrendered after a week of no supplies [and] no air support.”

“Actual skirmishes? I didn't know there were any.”

Jason Foo laughs. “The media tells you what we want you to know.”

And this might be the first time that New World Notes is breaking actual, real world news. For up until now, the Pentagon has been vague about what US troops have been doing in the Philippines; there may be some fairly significant legal and diplomatic concerns, if it’s the case that they’ve moved from an “advise and assist” capacity with Filipino troops, to actual combat with terrorists and insurgents. And if the person behind this avatar standing on the balcony of a virtual nightclub is telling the truth, then it’s already gone far beyond that. (And as it turns out, a quick Google search with "Marines fighting Philippines Abu Sayyaf" yields nothing but hints of direct US involvement in Filipino combat-- and from the Filipino government, strenuous denials of same.)

In the Marines, Jason was a Communications Specialist, which is the Corps’ taciturn way of describing the tremendously dangerous set of duties which involve forward reconnaissance well ahead of the front lines. “I wanted to test my skills to the max,” Foo tells me, on why he volunteered, “It was the biggest honor. Together with our [individual] specialties, we could smash a computer to pieces and put it back together with bubblegum, wire and sticks, and make it work. It’s crazy, the s*** we know, [like] using a tree to communicate with a satellite, by rigging up a satcom system to the tree and connecting an amplifier.”

When enemy troops doesn’t interrupt them, that is: “My unit got attacked at least once in each place we went.”

“From how far a distance?”

“I have an Iraqi bayonet,” Foo says, by way of explanation.

Which brings us back to the fedayeen commando who wanted to kill Jason Foo, another world away from this deck above the high-poly ocean. A member of Uday Hussein's fanatically loyal shock troops, infamous for quelling dissent by publicly beheading suspect Iraqi women in front of their families, the man had an assault rifle with a bayonet, and he was charging down on Foo.

“His gun jammed, and he went to run me through. I grabbed the gun, detached the bayonet, and cut his throat.

“I saw and did quite a bit,” Jason Foo concludes.

And I wonder if it's wise to discuss this any further with him. It’s easy to reveal the most personal things in a medium that is this abstract and intimate at once-- perhaps too much so, at times. As a journalist, I’ve had more earnest, unreserved, in-depth interviews in Second Life, than I’ve ever conducted on the phone, or even in person. In that regard, the vivid anonymity of Second Life is an enormous advantage, for reporters. Then again, it also suggests the need to have an even more stringent sense of journalistic ethics. These are real people behind these screens, and there are consequences involved, when it comes to publishing what they choose to tell you. And asking them to tell you more.

“Do you mind talking about all this?” I ask. “Just want to make sure.”

“It’s cool,” says Foo, “I went through therapy.” Just before he got back to the States, he says, “The war wouldn't stop in my head. I went crazy for two weeks... Someone always had to be with me at night. Someone would check on me every hour.”

I wonder aloud if he can ever fully recover from what he's been through.

“I hope so,” says Jason. “I keep having flashbacks and nightmares, though.”

And once again, I ask him if my having this conversation, relating his story to me here, like this, is worthwhile to him, or detrimental to his recovery.

“I think it helps,” he says, after some thought, and then changes the subject. “Hey, do you know all about how groups work? I need to know how to add and remove money from the group.”

Group ownership rights are an important way of running large enterprises, which in Foo’s case, means his drive to “get the club and casino running, offer cheap land to anyone who wants it. And make group funds pay all land fees for the Realm Development members. It’s L$1,000 to join out group, and you get a 512 [square meter] plot to start selling with, and a For Sale sign.”

Somehow, though, it's a bit difficult to change tracks at the moment. Or stop plunging ahead, even while you suspect, as you formulate the next question on your keyboard, that you're about to ask one question too many.

“Did losing a friend in Afghanistan make all this worse, you think?”

“Yes, it did,” says Jason. “Nothing hits ‘til it’s over.”

I offer my condolences. “It’s OK,” he insists. “But hey, man, my girlfriend is on her way over, so I have to get going.”

“What were you doing in Afghanistan?”

“Killing people,” says Jason Foo, brusquely. “I'll catch you later, man, OK?

Foo_closeup

PART III

I didn't speak with Jason Foo for most of March and much of April. In the interim, events in Iraq seemed to spiral to the edge of chaos, with dozens of his fellow Marines dead on the streets of Falluja. I wanted to check back in with him, to see what he thought of the situation-- and just as much, to discover how the continuing aftershocks of the war had been changing the shape of his world. As it turned out, in the intervening weeks since I saw him, they were still being felt, in ways that I didn't quite expect.

Since then, construction of Foo's real estate headquarters has been completed, with a casino on the main floor, and at the very top, an art gallery. (Some of the paintings are evidently by Foo himself.) When I meet him there, last week, he gives me a tour of the place, crowded with patrons hovering over the crap tables and the slot machines, while music from a DJ thrums through the hall. Since I saw him last, he's figured out how to stretch a digital photograph of his real face over his avatar's head-- the effect sort of makes him look like British actor Robert Carlyle.

"I already have about fifteen employees," Foo tells me, "and job positions are pretty full." Some of them sell real estate; others play hostess in the casino. He's looking to bring on people to help him create the future projects he has planned, but he's not sure he can put them on salary. "I would like to hire some scripters, but people who script are pretty much freelancers, and don’t like to work for anyone. In that case, I just program all my own stuff. It only took me a couple weeks to learn Linden Scripting Language, so it's not bad. I did a lot of programming in the Marine Corps, and other previous jobs."

The thing is, for all his success in-world, his computer skills still haven't translated into employment in the place where he lives, even after many months of being back home.

"The lack of high technology businesses here is keeping me from getting a job," he says. "I play Second Life on a daily basis, now that I am still unemployed."

And with this unemployment, his original ambitions to become a kind of benevolent tycoon, giving away land at bargain rates to beginners, have changed somewhat, as well.

"I really don’t want to use the game to make money," he tells me, "but I really have no choice any more. I need money to survive. In this case, I have just realized that I really can make a living on Second Life, so I am having to resort to relying on SL for my weekly pay, in addition to my unemployment checks." So he now sells some of his Linden Dollar earnings on a third-party website for real cash, to cover some of his necessities, in the real world.

"Coming back to civilian life after going to war, and not being able to find a job, is very frustrating," Foo writes to me in a long e-mail after my visit. "I have many times thought about going back into the service... it would be easier. But my thoughts are shattered when I come to the realization that I cannot go back in, because of my injuries... I am doomed to live the rest of my life in the civilian world, and leave everything I was behind me. Talking still with my buddies who are still in the Marines, makes me a little sad and depressed. I want to be there, I want to fight."

As it is now, he can only comment on the savaged country he left behind, and the ongoing battles that his fellow soldiers now face in Falluja, and against Sadr's Maadi army, in Najaf. When I ask for his insights on what they're facing, I expect a taciturn response-- instead, to my surprise, I get a passionate torrent.

"There will always be resistance factions wherever you go," Foo says, "because there are always groups of people who don’t like how the government is operating. The fact here is that in the Middle East, people are more aggressive, and willing to die for whatever they believe in. It will take a lot of time before the dust settles, and I believe we should not leave Iraq, until they are one hundred percent on their feet, and supporting themselves in a newly freed country. People are yelling at Bush to leave Iraq alone and let them take care of themselves, but if we were to do that, the whole country of Iraq would collapse."

Foo says he's come across a few Second Life residents who've talked about the war, and opposed it, but didn't know he was a Marine who had served there. "I set everyone straight immediately," he says. "People say President Bush is in Iraq for the oil." He laughs bitterly. "Do people really think that if we wanted just the oil, that gas prices would be as high as they are? We are there for the people."

Before the invasion even got started last year, a number of Iraqi soldiers came up to Jason Foo and his unit while they were setting up communication equipment, and just surrended to them en masse. "Even though Iraqi POWs don’t get a royal treatment, and they spend most the day in handcuffs, they say it is hundreds of times better than living under Saddam's rule." He's had other signal encounters with Iraqi civilians, that have strengthened his conviction on the matter. One man, for example, described to Jason Foo how he lost his daughter. "You people have more than you know," the Iraqi told him. "These things for us are real life, and we face it every day.” For when his girl accidentally bumped a soldier in Saddam's army, she was killed on the spot. "You ask why we are in Iraq," Foo says, "and I ask you why we weren’t there sooner."

But he's not finished yet: "I will not ever believe that my closest friends who fought next to me in combat died for nothing," he tells me heatedly. "Close your eyes, and think of your best friend right now, and watch as your friend is riddled with bullets or blown up by a land mine, and then tell me that your friend died for no good reason, and not cry. Now watch as someone comes up to you and doesn’t give one damn about what just happened as your friend is lying there in a pool of their own blood, and they just use their freedom of speech to bash the very thing your friend just died for. Now you are in my shoes. Welcome to the mind of a combat veteran.

"It may sound stupid to you," he finishes, "[but] I am sitting here with tears running down my face because my friends are dead, and people still say we are fighting for nothing."

New_foo

Earlier in the casino, I walk with Foo as he greets his customers, waving at them, announcing upcoming prize giveaways and the like. I follow him to the top deck, where we can keep talking in relative seclusion.

He's worked out a strategy for turning his career into Second Life into a means of subsisting through the fallow job market.

"I just wanted to have fun and help people," Foo says, "[But] I need to consistently make L$100,000 a week at my casino in Albion to transfer into US$450 real life money at IGE.com. The market is constantly changing, so I don’t know if I will get enough real life cash for my sales of game money the next week."

Despite this, he insists, "I will not let this keep me from providing a great environment for people to hang out, and meet people, and I will not ever push people to spend money. I am not greedy, and never will be. I just need to do what I can to pay my bills, and stay alive."

But even that might not be enough, which is something he dreads. "I may have to leave my home town here in the back woods [in] a place that doesn’t even show up on the map, to go find a state where I can find a job. I would also have to leave behind the rest of my family here again, as I did when I went to war. I left once, I don’t want to leave again."

So for now, he stays where he is, expanding his in-world empire from the computer in his one-bedroom apartment, taking from it what he needs, to keep the wolves at bay, while other comforts accrue. "It keeps me off my feet," says Foo, "which is good for me to heal, and it keeps me from going insane. I always have something to do now, and I get to talk to all sorts of people... It keeps my programming skills honed, and my creative talent on queue. So yes, I would say Second Life has helped me out a lot."

Before he finishes the interview, he tells me about a donation box he's built in his casino, and plans to erect, in sites all over Second Life, on behalf of the Disabled Veterans and POW Fund. "Every L$5000 collected gets transferred into US$20 for donation to the charity," he says. In other words, given market rates on virtual currency markets, all proceeds are donated. He's created an alternate account, VeteransFund best, to handle these transfers.

Foo_donation_box

"Just wanted to make him look like an old veteran," Jason Foo explains, as his bearded VeteransFund avatar stands beside his first donation box. And so with this, his enterprise expands to support not just one wounded veteran, but all the thousands returning home. Broken and damaged, but still soldiering on, any way they can, as they build a new life for themselves, in the country they fought and sacrificed so dearly for.

"As the Marines always say, 'Adapt and Overcome!' which means no matter what the situation, adapt to it, and overcome the obstacles. The Spirit of the Marine Corps still burns inside me," says Jason Foo, "and will never fade."

Foo_deck

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