The Future of Transport? Probably not, but it's sure fun!


Sunday, August 31, 2003


K, a friend from Seattle, came up for a visit yesterday to try out the Segway Human Transporter, which a local company rents by the hour. I've been wanting to give it a try myself, but with my recent work schedule it was difficult to co-ordinate a time. At last, the stars were properly aligned and the date was set.

I picked K up at the SkyTrain station and we drove into Vancouver; we were a bit early for our scheduled time so we walked to Granville Island and window-shopped until it was time to have our rendezvous with what is referred to as "The Future of Human Transport."

If you're not sure what a Segway is, they're the two-wheeled electric devices that you stand on and drive; the wheels are side-by-side rather than inline like a bike, and 5 gyroscopes stabilize the platform to keep it (and you) upright.

The first part of the process of learning how to operate a Segway is viewing a 10-minute safety video that covers the basic principles (basic operation, don't pull on the handgrips when mounting/dismounting, be careful around potholes/uneven terrain). After the video, you're given a liability waiver to sign (unfortunately, a fact of life these days) and Jack, the company owner, spends about 15 minutes teaching you how to operate the Segway -- starting, stopping, moving, turning -- culminating in doing a slalom course both forwards and backwards. Once he feels you're ready to hit the road, he gives you directions to the seawall (the final test is being able to get through the door, which isn't much wider than the Segway) and you're on your way.

I would have to say that for me, the hardest part of the learning process was simply TRUSTING THE TECHNOLOGY: it takes a little time to really understand and believe that the Segway is auto-balancing and that it isn't going to fall over while you're on it -- in fact, trying to balance by leaning forward or backward is what makes the thing move, so you need to lean only when you actually want to go somewhere. K seemed to adapt faster than me; it might have to do with women having a lower centre of gravity, or it could be that she's simply more graceful and balanced than I am.

The experience of riding a Segway, while strange at first, quickly becomes almost second nature and soon you're moving around as if it's the most natural thing in the world. I would think nothing of stopping and turning around in place (the Segway has a zero turning radius; it just spins in place) to see if I'd left K too far behind, then spinning back around and continuing on my merry way.

The Segway certainly attracts attention, and Jack made sure that we had a supply of business cards to hand out to anyone who was interested in them...and a lot of people were interested.

If I have any reservations about the Segway, it's these: first, the price; I know it's new technology and not widespread, but I certainly couldn't justify spending $5000 CDN on one of these beasts, as much fun as they are. Second, after an hour or so on a Segway your feet can start to ache; when riding a bicycle or even walking, your foot is in motion and pressure spots on the soles of your feet vary, while on a Segway it's almost like standing in one place for an hour without moving. If you're reading this, Dean Kamen, how about a Segway Special Edition with built-in foot massage, or even some of the padded mats used in work areas where people are on their feet all day?

If you have the chance to try out a Segway I would recommend you do so; they're maneuverable, surprisingly fast (there are 3 "keys" you use to start the Segway, a training key [black], a regular key [yellow] and a third key [red] that we didn't have access to -- but considering that you can get going at a pretty good clip while using the yellow key, I'm not sure we were ready for the next level), and definitely fun!





What Makes a Gift Special?


Sunday, August 17, 2003


I recently finished working on this year's Celebration of Light fireworks competition, and it made me contemplate a gift I received last year:


The crimping pliers shown in the picture are designed for use with a specific type of wire connector; these connectors (also shown in the picture) are primarily used in telephone work; you don't have to strip the wires, just insert them into the connector and squeeze...a connection is made and because there's a silicone gel inside, the resulting connection is watertight. We use these to connect firing wire to the electric match, or squib, which is inserted into the fuse for the fireworks. Current goes down the wire, ignites the squib which in turn lights the fuse, the fireworks go in the air and pretty lights result. We use them because when you're competing against other teams, nobody is going to trust the firing connections to a couple of wires that are twisted together by hand.

These pliers are nearly impossible to find on the West Coast for some reason (though you can buy the connectors at Radio Shack), but it's never been that big of a deal because we only use them once a year and I have always been able to borrow a pair to use during the competition. Last year I borrowed a pair from Michel,the Production Coordinator, as I have in the past -- but when I returned them to him at the end of the shows, he told me to go ahead and keep them. Apparently this is only the second time he's done this; the only other pair he's given out went to Hans, our crew chief, some time back.

Needless to say I was very grateful to be "awarded" with the pliers. While I don't pretend to know why Michel decided to gift me with them, I would like to think that it means the following:

1) My efforts on the shows are valued;

2) I am someone who can appreciate the necessity of wanting to use the right tool for the job;

3) My services will be requested in the following years.

Gifts can be useful, or they can be frivolous; they can be generic or they can be suited to a specific recipient. I do believe "it's the thought that counts" but whatever Michel's reason for giving me the pliers, I was deeply honoured to be given them.

In the time since then I was able to find a tool company that could order in the pliers and I did order myself a spare set...and while I loaned them out to other people during this year's shows, I kept Michel's pliers for my use alone.

Merci beaucoup, Michel. See you next year!