For awhile there, full expression in Second Life was prohibited to Germans and fans of death metal. This is because shortly after version 1.9 launched on the 15th, an extraordinarily unforseen bug was discovered the hard way. When you sent an Instant Message to another Resident, and that IM contained umlauts, something strange happened.
The server crashed. Yours, and the server of the person you were trying to IM.
A bug like this was bizarre enough, but besides, say, members of SL's Mötorhead fan club, IM-ing umlauts isn't likely to be a top activity for most Residents. Except, of course, for the thousands of Residents from a country that depend on umlauts like air.
"You have to understand that these characters are used quite often in German," Falk Bergman of Germany explains to me. "In fact they are right next to L and P on my keyboard-- can easily be pressed by accident even... they sound like 'ae', 'ue', and 'oe'. We also have an double-s character. That would crash the sim too. Any non-standard character did. French players will have had the same problems."
"Why not stop using the umlaut?" I ask. "It only seems to add a pronuciation rule, right?"
Falk snorts. "OK, I dare you stop using 'e'... would you want to be unable to type one word in twenty improperly because the character is missing or 'bad'?"
So the next day when Second Life CEO Philip Linden appeared in-world for a regular town hall meeting, he had a special contingent of protesters waiting for him with signs ready-- angry Germans demanding restoration of their umlauts.
"I know we sounded a little bit overreacted," protest leader Kristina Simon told me later, "but... our community island DIE INSEL crashed yesterday 23 times. Not kidding. When we write those umlauts in an IM to another German both sims crash, and we could crash a sim with shouting those letters too."
So Philip Linden addressed an already contentious town hall, surrounded by signs from Residents of "old Europe" (in Donald Rumsfeld's charming phrase) lobbying for the restoration of umlauts. "People that just arrived [at the town hall] were asking 'what's up with the signs'," Falk notes, "and we would say we can't tell you, because curiosity will get the better of you and you will crash the sim." Throughout the years, griefers and hackers have concocted criminally ingenious means of crashing SL's servers, from self-replicating "gray goo" to nuclear bombs, but it took Linden Lab itself to (inadvertantly) top them all with the most elegant kill switch ever-- two inconspicuous dots passed privately from one Resident to another, and 32 acres of SL simply disappeared off the grid.
I asked development head Cory Linden to explain the logic behind a bug so strange it seemed supernatural. His bullet-pointed explanation, unsurprisingly, also required translation.
"1) We failed to properly handle UTF-8 strings in one part of our revamped transport layer," Cory e-mailed me, "Which led to 2) A crash in the message formatting step did to improper indexing. This caused us to 3) Patch the crash right away, although we still didn't handle the message correctly. The fix for that is rolling out today [Sunday]. 4) We missed it more because of overall constraints on testing time. We have a better UTF-8 test script as a result of the crash and will endeavor not to be caught out in the same way again."
After asking him to explain, well, every single word he just said, a less technical explanation goes something like this:
Since letters with umlauts are actually composed of multiple characters, they're specially encoded and transmitted through a method called UTF-8. The trouble occured because Linden Lab had just revamped the way messages were passed between regions (each of which are housed by a server)-- but in the process, they'd failed to fully integrate UTF-8 strings into the new system. Like special needs children passed back and forth between foster homes, umlauts would usually ride on custom buses created just for them-- which worked out fine, until the day when the highways were refurbished, and the drivers weren't given new directions. Which quickly caused whole freeways to get clogged by a pile-up of short buses trying to find exits which no longer existed.
By now the umlauts are restored and the crashes no longer occur; Kristina Simon is forgiving but wishes Linden Lab were more considerate to the needs of non-US Residents like her.
"I think of course it's because they are an American company," she tells me. "It's OK when someone does a mistake, but this was a more then annoying one..." But the challenges will continue, as SL expands across the globe, taking up Residents with languages and even more exotic symbols at their fingertips.