The Grand Experiment

I often read about the complaints in Second Life about the development that occurs in the “mainland” area of this metaverse. For those of you who are not familiar with the term “mainland,” Second Life has two types of land. Mainland is the virtual land that is owned and terraformed by Linden Labs and sold to individuals who can then subdivide and sell this land to others. (Much in the same manner that the United States created the Public Land System and sold land patents to generate income for the federal government.) The other type is estate land that is sold as a full sim or island with an area of 65,536 square meters. Private islands must be ordered and owned by an individual who then has the power to terraform the land to suit a particular purpose. The owner can rent this land to others or keep it for private use and always has control over what can be built on that island. However, an owner cannot subdivide this island and sell off parcels – only the entire island can be sold to another individual.

 (The photo below shows a typical private island development. Note the well-organized layout, attractive build, streets, public places, and landscaping. There is a distinct lack of objectionable objects and structures.)

Caledon Mayfair Development

The problem with mainland is that there are no subdivision, zoning, or building regulations, and people in Second Life are upset about what ends up getting built next to or near them. Now, I know that all of you who work with these issues in real life could have predicted that this would happen. Don’t we all hear it everyday at work, even with all the rules and regulations that we have in place. The bottom line is that everyone wants to do what they want to do, and they get upset and irate if the rules prevent them from doing it. But when their neighbor does something that may be allowed but that they don’t like, they demand a new rule to prevent it. This goes back to the challenge in our country of trying to ensure everyone the “pursuit of happiness” idea from our Declaration of Independence. What happens when your pursuit conflicts with mine. That is the eternal struggle faced by our politicians – who do they legislate for? Linden Labs has decided not to try to decide that – the pursuit of happiness is not guaranteed in Second Life.

(The next photo shows a typical mainland development where parcels have been subdivided into such small sizes that they only support ads. Although there is a public road here, there is no distinct route and there are images and builds that may be objectionable to some.)Mainland Development along Linden Road

This new frontier has been compared to the Wild West of the United States in how it is developing; people build what they want. If someone doesn’t like it, they try to use their own ingenuity to either ignore it or drive it away. (Of course, in the Wild West, the use of firearms seem to take care of a lot of these problems.) Linden Labs has created the ultimate experiment that illustrates how people will plan, develop, build, and inhabit their world when limited only by imagination, money, and time. This type of experiment could never have been done in real life. And now all of us who work with zoning, planning, and building in real life can watch as this experiment unfolds. We can observe the behaviors and outcomes that result from this type of development and learn from it. There are many insights that could come out of a professional analysis of development in Second Life. How these types of behaviors led to our own rules and regulations. What happens when all rules and regulations are suspended. How people attempt to resolve problems when they have no government to rely on. Perhaps there are some solutions here that can be implemented by those of us dealing with this on a daily basis.

Maybe next time that person comes in to complain about how her neighbor put up a bright pink fence, I can suggest a prim wall with a scene of her choice….

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Round and Round

Although I have been enjoying the use and exploration of Second Life, I have to admit that it is beginning to make my RL  a bit more frustrating than usual. Aside from the usual perks of SL that simply cannot be implemented in RL  such as hovering names above avatars (great for people like me who have trouble remembering everyone’s name – particularly when looks can be changed so drastically) and the ability to teleport between destinations, there are many capabilities in SL that can implemented in RL to enhance or improve RL activities or tasks.

I recently attended a seminar given by the FHWA at the local DOT in Ottawa, Ill., which covered the design and implementation of roundabouts. Although the speakers gave an excellent presentation, I could not help but dwell on how SL would have made this class so much better.

First of all, classes and conventions held in SL do not require anyone to travel outside of their home or place of business. This provides the obvious benefits of not having all of the attendees use energy resources to get to the class. This also allows more people to attend even if they had a short conflict on that day – something which would have normally prevented them from being there that day. If attending in SL, they can easily take off for a short time to take care of this task and then return to class without causing a disruption.

Next, the class material which was presented through a powerpoint presentation could have easily been shown in SL on one of the many tools that have been created for this purpose. The third-party voice capabilities offer the opportunity to add voice, and of course, soon voice will be a regular feature on the grid. The books which were handed out to supplement the class presentation could have been mailed to us prior to the class.

SL also offers the ability for attendees to ask questions during the presentation, and if someone missed a certain point, they have the ability to IM a fellow attendee for clarification without having to disrupt class.

Also, If the FHWA had a permanent site in SL, an area could be set up to store these presentations, so an attendee could go back later to clear up any point or question that may have been missed.

Of course, all of you who have attended classes in SL already are fully aware of these benefits. In the case of this particular seminar, the ability in SL to build and interact with the topic of our class – a roundabout – would have greatly enhanced the class. Although roundabouts are widely used in England and other parts of our country, most of us in the class, which was held in Illinois, were not familiar with roundabout design or function. All of us would have benefited to have the chance to leave the class and visit an actual roundabout built in SL and then drive it with our virtual cars. The FHWA could have signed the roundabout and textured the pavement with the suggested striping to show us visually how a proper design looks. The agency could also have built one or more with design flaws and let us drive them to better illustrate why those flaws must be avoided in our designs. Then this exhibit could have been left in place for a while so that others  could benefit from the presentation.

I have to admit that I could not help but try to convince one of the presenters of these benefits and encouraged him to check out SL. But so far he has not been able to visit so that I can demonstrate the features of SL. I can only hope that with all of the other federal agencies setting up virtual spaces, that the FHWA won’t be far behind. And maybe the next time I need to go to a class, I’ll be able to bring my virtual Nissan.

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Public Works Center in Disarray

Griefer’s Attack in West Sunset

So, my public works center in Second Life is in disarray – It all started after I attended the International Technology Expo (ITE) in Second Life on Silicon City. I had gone with my alt to listen to a builder’s panel discussion about meeting a client’s expectations in Second Life. One of the panelists, Keystone Bouchard, is the person who inspired me to enter Second Life when I saw his presentation of this virtual world at Autodesk University in November of 2007. Well, yesterday’s presentation was no different – his comments, and those of the other panelists, about building in Second Life – drove me to immediately return to my center and start “renovating.”

I was happily building away when I heard a strange sound, looked around, and noticed pictures flying through the air near my center. I send an IM to the sim owner, Doeko Cassidy, who immediately responded by showing up and removing the offending device creating these pictures. So my efforts at improving my center were interrupted by some jerk causing problems for no good reason – in a way I guess that is a lot like real life. 

Well, I decided to leave my center for a while to look for objects I needed to decorate the place and by the time I returned, half of the place was inaccessible – the island was offline. Now today, Sunday, the whole island is completely gone!

Because I have the center spanning two sims, I still have a portion of the building available, and I have copies of everything that was in the other sim except for a television. But I am left wondering if the island and building will be returned and why it was taken off line. I guess that is the essence of the problems with Second Life – you can spend hours creating and working on your space to have it all disappear in a flash with absolutely no explanation. Can you imagine a whole block of your community disappearing into nothing and not having to address this with your citizens? Well, all of you in public works could imagine the scene at city hall if an incident like that could actually happen. In Second Life, things disappear all the time, and it seems that no one is ever given an explanation of why. I have faith that with backups the island can be restored but still cannot help buy wonder why it happened and wish that someone would at least give the “owners” of land on that sim an explanation.

In any event, I am still in renovation mode and will work on the remaining portion of the center in order to provide an even better resource for those who are able to visit the center. I have also set up a display for an event I plan to hold through the month of May so look for the upcoming announcement.

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Second Life – A Resource for Engineers

Streetscape in Second Life

(After spending my first month of blogging on real life issues, I am going to start exploring the unique capabilities of Second Life and how this software application can be used to assist engineers during the design and construction process.)

Engineering curriculum over the last few decades rarely focused on the esthetics of an engineering designappearances and looks were left for the architects to worry about. However, over the last decade, there has been a rising public demand for engineering designs that enhance our community’s appearance and presentation. People want to feel good about the way their environment looks.

As an engineer educated in the 1980s, I have been designing infrastructure within the design guidelines established by agencies and organizations such as the DOT, AASHTO, FHWA, EPA, etc. In the past there was little guidance in the manuals for establishing a streetscape that would appeal to users of particular environment such as shoppers, walkers, bicyclists, people-watchers. Although today these agencies establish some accepted practices to follow in a streetscape design, they still cannot convey the secret to achieving “what looks good.” Traveling to other cities to see what was accomplished elsewhere is helpful but time consuming and costly.

 This is where Second Life comes in. First, I want to let those who have not yet been to Second Life know that at first a new user needs to spend the time learning some of the basics of the environment before reaching the skill level necessary to achieve a positive experience. Sometimes I think that this may lead people to believe that “it just isn’t worth the hassle.” After going through the initial orientation, I admit that I did not go back to Second Life for a monththe first few places I was sent as a new person or avatar in this world had not adequately hinted at what was lying beyond. Fortunately I pressed on.

As an engineer, in particular an esthetically challenged engineer, I could not help but be drawn to the streetscapes created by peoplemost of whom I suspect are not engineers. Right away I realized the resource that was created here for me. Second Life is like having a public hearing where everyone gets to create the type of streetscape they would like to have in their community. An engineer can travel through Second Life taking photos (yes, you can take photos in Second Life), apply the necessary design guidelines, and develop a working design! What is the hardest part for meplacing and choosing the elements in a pleasing configuration – has already been done. I can even print out several, present them at a council meeting or public meeting, and have our community choose the one they would like to see built.

I encourage you to come to Second Life at least once, if for nothing else but to admire the great streetscapesI will be the woman checking out the tree grate.dell_009.bmp

 

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Our city crews only work in our city…

Like many other public works departments, we received our share of complaints over this winter season. Every year there are a few that stick in your mind and are hard to forget. Usually for me, these are the complaints involving an angry tirade from an irate citizen. This year the two that remained with me came from two different people and involved no yelling at all.

 The first was from a citizen in a neighboring city. In a statement to the local paper, he expressed his disagreement with our council's decision to spend a large sum of money on a particular project in our city. He felt that instead the money should be spent fixing his road.

The second complaint came from another citizen in the neighboring city. It was during a snowstorm, and he insisted that we immediately plow his road in front of his home.

Now, the key point in both of these complaints is that the person complaining did not live in our city, and addressing the complaint would have required our city to perform some service for them in their city. Initially, the first reaction to these types of complaints might be to either ignore them or just shake our head. In our case, we obviously could not address each person's complaint because our city is not responsible for performing work or services in another city unless there was a pre-existing agreement, which in this case there was not. However, I could not stop thinking about these requests.

 From the calm, confident tone and manner in which each person expressed his concern, I think that each truly believed that he was making a valid request. If so, this is proof of a significant lack of understanding by the average citizen of how local government operates. (Actually, I have always suspected this, but now I have a specific instance to which I can refer.) I just cannot comprehend that somewhere in our upbringing, there is such a lack of education about how our governmental system works. Such a lack that someone living in one city would actually believe that another city has any type of responsibility to provide them services.

Everyone has become so much more dependent on government as families move apart and support systems break down. This imposes an even greater need for citizens to understand, trust, and get involved in their local government.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead, this lack of understanding creates frustration for the citizen whose needs are not met and creates more issues and challenges for those of us working in public works as we try to take the time to explain the parameters in which we operate.

What is the answer? Whose responsibility is it to educate the public? Some public works departments across the country, as understaffed and unfunded as many of us are, do try to make an effort to do our part in spreading information about our operations. The American Public Works Association, APWA, promotes Public Works Week and offers advice and tools to implement an informational event in your community on their website at www.apwa.net.

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Totally Missing the Point

Image

On a trip to an establishment in a neighboring city, I noticed the ramp shown above. Something did not look right, and upon further inspection, I realized the curb was not depressed. With the implementation of the final decision concerning ramp design, I have been trying to go out of my way to check out the ramps in other communities. I realized there has been some confusion and lack of knowledge concerning the regulations and requirements governing ramp construction, but I never thought I would see someone put in the detectable warnings but not depress the curb. What were they thinking while they were pouring the detectable warning pads? 

I suppose someone could have thought that putting in detectable warnings prior to all roadway crossings, accessible or not, is a great idea. The problem is that due to the ADA regulation, people with reduced eyesight will reach this and expect a ramp with a depressed curb. This will confuse the pedestrian and could perhaps cause injury.

Clearly there is still a significant lack of training and education surrounding curb ramp construction. On publicly funded jobs, the engineer can be more involved and ensure that the requirements are being met. On privately funded projects where there may be no oversight by an engineer or architect, the owner is relying on the contractor to meet the requirements.

Last year, I was called to a new subdivision under construction because the developer was forming the public sidewalk and trying to conform to the ADA requirements that I had given him related to cross slope. A driveway had been poured from the private garage to the curb, through the area of the sidewalk, and the contractor for the homeowner had not met the ADA-mandated cross slope of 2% through the sidewalk area. The developer was having to match the nonconforming cross slope with his new sidewalk. I suggested he contact the driveway contractor to work this out. That driveway contractor called me and was extremely agitated. He felt it was the city’s responsibility to keep him informed about every federal, state, and local regulation that governed his work. Of course, it was all the city’s fault in his mind.   

I do think that public works professionals can educate to some degree but with reduced staff and funding at all levels of government, there is only so much we can do. There have been a few good articles published over the last year or so that are related to this subject:

Public Works Magazine, “Ramping up for Compliance”

APWA Reporter, “Is there a compliant curb ramp out there?”

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