Monday, November 17, 2003

If you have a 1 to 4 character name or nickname, plug it into Tiny URL and see what happens. For example, leads to the rec.arts.sf.composition FAQ.

Odd. leads to the most egregious use of the F-word I have seen in a while. At the same time, the author makes a valid point or two.

Idea came from BoingBoing.
10:57:55 PM  pontificate    

I rode a Segway for the first time on Friday.

Very cool -- not just from a "cool toy/device" perspective, but also in how it revealed a bit about the way the human brain works [at least, mine].

The brain never really stops. Even in a period of minimal activity, the brain is more or less implementing a sort of event loop (to borrow terminology from my life as a coder). That is, things happen, the brain responds. Because things are happening all the time -- breathing, digestion, responding to gravity -- the brain's "event loop" can only idle, never stop.

Standing up is a wonderful feedback loop executed by the brain. In effect, it is optimized to minimizing the "falling over" part of balancing a big bag of mostly water on two relatively small point supports.

All things considered, the brain does a damned fine job of implementing this particular behavior. I can stand on a moving train car and hold an intense conversation with a friend while relatively little of my brain is occupied by the "standing" process. Even with a mass amount of inebriation, the brain is quite capable of doing the "standing" thing very effectively (many a person has wished their brain had given the "fall over" signal before they made an utter fool of themselves in this context).

Walking is really just the "standing" loop with an optimization towards falling in a particular direction in a consistent and controlled fashion. Lift foot. Move foot forward. Catch fall. Balance on new point. Lift other foot. Repeat until there.

Like a lot of tools, the Segway is built around the notion of making some particular task-- in this case, walking-- better in some fashion. In the Segway's case, it allows the user to carry a load for a longer distance faster than they might otherwise be able to on foot.

In effect, the Segway does the walking while the user just has to stand on the Segway.

This also means that the user has to be able to stand on the Segway when it isn't moving. However, the Segway helps in this. Internally, the Segway uses a series of gyroscopes and other cool stuff to maintain balance on two wheels for the person standing on the Segway.

At first, this confuses the brain big time.

When I first stood upon the Segway, all of my brain's "oh my, I'm standing on a surface that is freely pivoting front/back under my feet" wiring kicked in.

Which meant that as I started to learn forward slightly, my brain immediately decided that I really needed to lean back to keep from falling over. But the Segway had already figured all of this out -- it had already decided that I wanted to go forward and that I shouldn't be allowed to fall over.

Of course, by leaning back, the Segway stopped going forward. Which meant that now my brain was thoroughly in the "oh my, I'm falling over backwards and must compensate by leaning forward" mode.


Now, all of this happened many times in a few seconds. I didn't move forward more than a foot or so and I didn't roll backwards at all. I probably didn't swing the control handle forward/back by more than a few inches.

To my brain, however, the sensation was very real and very confusing. The feedback loop was getting a lot more input during certain points than my brain was wired for and it was over compensating in return. There was far too much ordered input in a system that expects to have a series of relatively chaotic, but equally tiny, input.

However, the brain is versatile. Extremely versatile in its ability to rewrite the loop to handle the current situation. As such, it took no more than 5 or so seconds before the oscillations subsided and around 30 seconds until I was perfectly comfortable standing still on the Segway.

In mentioning this to the owner, he knew exactly what I had gone through and indicated that it is the common reaction to one's first time on a Segway.

After that, using the device was a breeze. The only confusion was in turning. One would expect from looking at the unit that the handle turns and doing so would turn the device one way or another. This is not the case. Instead, the end of the left handle (why left hand in a predominantly right handed world? No idea.) has a rotating group much like a motorcycle's accelerator. Turn it clockwise, go right, etc.

Turning requires a bit of getting used to, but not bad. Reverse seems hard for most. I had not problem with going backwards, but I also have no problem driving a car backwards at 40 mph, when necessary (fallout from learning to drive from my Mother... she does the same comfortably as a result of having to back out of long winding driveways through trees in the country on a regular basis).

I have no doubt that the next time I step onto a Segway, I'll have a similar experience but the "oscillation" period will not last nearly as long.

It reminded me a lot of snorkeling. The first time I stick my head under water on vacation, my brain always went into "freak out" mode because of the conflicting desire to breathe while my face is covered in water. Over time, that "freak out" has become less and less pronounced as I have gotten used to the sensation.


As it stands, I have no use for a Segway (outside of entertainment). I certainly do not need to add a device to my life that would eliminate a good chunk of what little exercise I get from walking as it is.

Kudos to the designers and engineers. The Segway is really a very, very cool device.
5:51:10 PM  pontificate